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Our Super Bowl Didn’t End Sunday

The right needs to engage voters and learn to build an audience for less than $7 million per minute.

2:37 PM, Feb 7, 2012 • By OWEN BRENNAN
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Early in my career I worked for the ad agency that invented the modern-day Super Bowl commercial. This year, my partners produced the Sling Baby ad for Doritos, which was one of the Sunday’s most popular spots, according to USA Today’s AdMeter.


But we owe all the hype about Super Bowl advertising to 1984. That was Apple’s ad featuring the iconic imagery of a heroic woman breaking the hold of big brother. The ad only ran once, but it made Super Bowl advertising a destination event for brands ever since.

For readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, our big event is underway. Our big game goes all the way to November. And instead of a fictional character smashing the state, this is a real fight about the proper role of government and the rights of every individual.

The good news – if you’re in the Change the World Business – is that you don’t have to pay $3.5 million for 30 seconds with voters. There are ways to build a formidable audience both organically and through smaller-than-Super-Bowl budgets. The bad news: Democrats, liberal groups and progressive activists are way ahead of you in the world of social media.

Being slow to catch on isn’t a new problem for folks on the Right.  In 1960, Richard Nixon lost the presidential debates to John F. Kennedy, not on the strength of his arguments, but because of JFK’s appearance of TV. Republicans are still struggling to figure out TV (see the epic introduction of Obama in 2008 vs. a lonely man in the spotlight, John McCain taking the stage in front of an inexplicable backdrop in Minneapolis.)

Expertise in stagecraft and messaging on the left dominates television and now it dominates social media. And though conservative arguments, free market policies and founding principles should win on any stage; few communication professionals since those who worked in the Reagan shop have successfully articulated those arguments while harnessing the power of stories and imagery.

The failure of Republicans to use social media has already been documented (beyond my own writings). Digital marketer Al Diguido recently wrote, “Republican candidates and their marketing teams have missed a huge opportunity to build their brands by leveraging effectively social media.”

Earlier this year Mitt Romney released a beautifully produced graphic boasting about his campaign’s social media presence. At the time he had 1.25 million fans on Facebook. More than 200,000 more have signed up since then.

President Obama has 25 million fans on Facebook. Romney doesn’t have 10% as many fans as the President, and he’s been campaigning for the White House as long as the current occupant has.

But just because a presidential candidate can’t use social media effectively doesn’t mean other folks in the Change the World Business should follow suit. This election is your Super Bowl and your potential audience is even bigger than the weekend’s big game. 

A record 111.3 million people tuned in on Sunday to watch a super model’s prayers go unanswered. But on Facebook, there are more than 845 million users, with half of them logging on every day. And even though 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States, the potential audience to reach during this campaign season is undeniably large and it is also incredibly engaged. For instance, the average Facebook user visits the site 40 times per month and spends 23 minutes each visit. What website do you go to 40 times a month and spend more than 20 minutes on it every time you visit? (Note, this publication's online editor is hoping you say, “WeeklyStandard.com.”)

Beyond just being a very sticky website, a recent study by Pew reveals Facebook is a hotbed for political activity, where the most active users are more likely to be engaged in political activism and more like persuade their friends to vote a certain way.

There are so many politically active people on Facebook that if you’re a candidate, a non-profit, think tank of a media outlet, you must have a presence on the social media platform.  To be successful though, you have to know how it works. And Facebook doesn’t work how you think it does. And if you’re not using it correctly, chances are your content isn’t being seen, no matter how large your audience is.

The gatekeeper is the Facebook algorithm: EdgeRank. With this, Facebook channels its own version of Ayn Rand: Every time you post, prepare to be judged. Or for readers who champion the cause of fiscal responsibility, one analyst compares EdgeRank to your credit rating, “It's invisible, it's important, it's unique to each user, and no one quite knows how it works.”

More thorough analysis of exactly how EdgeRank works is available elsewhere online. For organizations and individuals – from think tanks and media to scholars and journalists – the single thing to understand about getting the message out in this Social News environment is that the basic rules haven’t changed.

Great headlines, great leads, great topics, great sources and brevity are more important than ever. The fundamental difference with Social News is that outlets can no longer count on delivering what they determine is “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Consumers who get their news in a Social News environment are going to see the content that has the most engaged audience. Consumers of content from the most effective Facebook accounts not only ‘Like’ content, but comment frequently, interact with authors, share content and ideas, and ultimately help deliver the account’s content to their own group of friends. Where the New York Times delivers content to the door step of subscribers, a well crafted post on Facebook can deliver content far beyond the audience that subscribes to your content.

Engagement is Facebook’s secret sauce. But this doesn’t mean your strategy should consist of vapid declarations you hope fans will agree with, like this recent item from Team Romney, “We’re going to take back the White House. We’re going to take back our country. Stand with me.”

Engagement means being engaged with your audience. On Super Bowl Sunday, Team Obama could have made an equally flat declaration like, “Let’s hope we have a great game today!” Or, “Today a great nation of Giants and Patriots gets to celebrate.” Either post would have generated many cheap clicks on ‘Like.’ Though scholars of Los Angeles-area dialects might have greeted this status update with the historically significant, “Gag me with a spoon.”

But instead, Team Obama shared something from the President’ s life that would actually be useful to all football fans, regardless of political affiliation or team alliance.  “Need a chili recipe for tonight?” they posted in a status update, “Try this one, from the Obamas. Then share your pick to win the big game.” Fans not only clicked ‘Like,” they commented, shared and they even made the recipe. The only thing Team Obama could have done better to drive engagement would have been to get into the comment section to see if fans improved the family recipe. Even so, how’s Mitt Romney planning on winning over voters who love the Obama’s Chili.

As the President’s campaign suits up for this big game, they’re going to have a an adoring media on the sidelines and a billion-dollar team with a defensive line of Hollywood sycophants and an offensive line of Super Pacs and activists.

If the true friends of freedom want to engage voters with the message about the threat of a very real –  very big – Big Brother, social media might be the most effective way to get the word out. We just need to use it properly.

Owen Brennan is a former speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a former producer for Bill O’Reilly. He is a partner at Madison McQueen, a new media agency in Los Angeles.

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