Social media may be the flavor of the moment for corporate marketers but these tools won't work for everyone, according to the man who led the social media component of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, saying it was Obama's message -- and not the medium -- that carried the 2008 election.
"Message and messenger are key. This isn't going to work for every organization or every start-up business if the message that you are selling isn't resonating," said Scott Goodstein, the CEO of Revolution Messaging and formerly the external online director at Obama for America, during a speech at the Ad:Tech Singapore conference on Wednesday.
Obama, who was elected president last year, used the Internet and social media -- a broad term that encompasses social networking sites, blogs, video-sharing sites like YouTube, and message service Twitter -- to spread his views on key topics and organize his supporters. But the candidate, not social media or the Internet, won the election, Goodstein said.
"It was an honor to work at the Obama campaign because at that point in American history we had the right candidate, the right message," he said.
One of the challenges faced by political campaigns in the U.S. is the declining audience share held by major television networks as people turn to other media, such as the Internet. "As a political campaign, it's very difficult to make sure your message is getting heard," he said.
Social networking sites and YouTube helped the Obama campaign get their message out, giving campaign staffers a way of responding directly to voter questions about Obama's policies and views in the comment sections of these sites, for example. In the past, when campaigns relied on press releases and television commercials that was never possible, Goodstein said.
While responding to voter questions required a significant investment in time and effort, the Obama campaign saw an opportunity to build on grassroots support among voters.
"We tried our hardest to answer millions and millions of questions in a one-on-one interaction, knowing that people would be impressed with the answer and people would tell their friends and be able to talk about it and be our own brand ambassador," he said.
Obama's campaign used the Internet to greater effect than any previous presidential campaign, building on efforts by Howard Dean to rally supporters and raise funds for his campaign during the Democratic primary elections in 2004. But the online efforts of Obama for America were not implemented all at once. Campaign staff gradually built up its online presence over time, starting with a handful of sites and expanding to many others.
"We started out with a few of us in an office in February 2007 and then built the entire organization from there," Goodstein said.
Companies or organizations that want to use the Internet and social media to reach their customers must set clear goals and experiment with a range of sites and tools. "If we didn't experiment, we would never have been able to figure out what worked and what didn't work, what was wasting our time," he said.