Andrew Bleeker, a Washington-based digital guru who was director of Internet advertising for President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, in 2012 helped lead the largest political online marketing campaign in history for the President’s re-election. Now with Hill + Knowlton Strategies, he was in Ottawa this week to meet with political operatives for all three major Canadian political parties and talked to The Globe and Mail editorial board on Wednesday about how digital media is changing politics.
Q: What can politicians and businesses learn from President Obama’s use of digital media during the 2012 campaign?
The concept of building an online community is a new one. You have to start early on social media. It is about building relationships as opposed to hitting people over the head with a message. You are building a community of support and you can later rally people to events. Social media gives a candidate credibility. If a message is shared on Facebook, it is more credible. That is how our culture has developed influence.
Q: What form of social media is the most influential?
Twitter has redefined the news. It is the real winner in this election and it is where the real debate happened. Every member of Obama’s staff would tweet directly, even junior staffers. David Axelrod [Mr. Obama’s chief campaign strategist] would tweet and it would become a story. The press would tell us, we won’t write about it if it doesn’t have a social media presence. The debates were remembered not for classic comebacks or hits, but for things like Mitt Romney’s comment about having a binder full of women, and Big Bird.
Q: How does that change politics?
Twitter accelerated the pace of events. During the presidential debates, for example, one journalist told me he had to file a story by the time the debate ended, so he didn’t have time to watch it. Instead he followed the Twitter feed and based his story on that.
Q: Is this a good thing?
A: It’s not always helpful to a democracy. Social media can be a crutch for journalists whose travel budgets are going down. It is a quick way to get ideas for stories. It’s Tumblr accounts coming through. Buzz feeds of the world.
Q: That doesn’t sound positive.
On the plus side, there is greater accountability in politics. Members of the U.S. Senate – people like John McCain – actually post updates and tweets and follow one another and have debates online. That provides real voice and dialogue.
Q: How did the use of social media differ during the 2008 campaign?
It was so novel back then, in 2008, even for a presidential candidate to have a Facebook page. The concept of being part of the social media feed didn’t exist. But in 2012, it was much more impactful because of the critical mass using social media.
Q: Did you fundraise through social media?
Corporate giving was bigger this year because of the creation of super PACs [political action committees]. The only way we could keep up to the Republicans was thanks to our digital social media. Romney got bigger cheques than we did but it meant he also had to go to fundraisers while Obama didn’t. We gathered $700-million of our $1.1-billion donations through websites, while only $200-million of Mitt Romney’s total $900-million donations came from online.
Q: Who donates in this way?
A lot of 60-year-old women. Older women are the fastest-growing demographic online. Most of the donors are not kids.
Q: What about e-mail?
Yes, you can add e-mail to your list of digital buckets. You have to have a way for people to opt in. You push them to a website that asks for their e-mail by offering them something to sign up for, Michelle Obama’s birthday card, or to get access to a photo gallery or to find out when the candidate will be in their area.
Q: Why is this important?
Social media is a communication tool. But e-mail is an action tool. If you have an e-mail list that is up-to-date, when an election is called, you have an infrastructure to get people out. They will donate and volunteer and come out to rallies.
Q: Are Canadian political parties interested in social media?
All major Canadian political parties are very interested. The Conservative Party isn’t as far along, but the New Democrats seem very aggressive about social media. There will be a fight between the Liberals and the New Democrats to see who can build the biggest digital base on the left. Who is going to own the centre-left? The party with the bigger digital base will be key. The election period is shorter in Canada so it is more difficult for a candidate to build a social media community in five weeks. That means the parties will have to do it for the candidates. How do you make the case for that internally within the party?
Q: How else can social communities online be used?
How big the base is becomes a factor in how a party’s ability to reach out to the “persuadables,” more potential supporters.
You can get people speaking on the candidate’s behalf to their friends. We have Facebook data on demographics and can match it against a target and figure out who you should talk to. Only 20 per cent of what you put out on social media gets picked up through the Facebook feed.
Q: Are there any other differences between Canada and the U.S.?
We have voter files in the U.S. with really good data, showing everything from when you show up to vote, whether you vote in the congressional elections as well as presidential, whether you are a likely Democrat supporter. That makes it easier to target persuadables.
Q: What new forms of social media have the most potential?
Pinterest [a photo-sharing website that allows people to create thematic photo and picture boards] is a big new thing. It has done well. It has a lot of female users. Instagram [an online photo-sharing device] has done well, too.
News aggregators are also popular. Geo-location tools may be more difficult to catch on. Video-sharing is also a tougher sell. How can it distinguish itself from YouTube?
Q: What do you think of Research in Motion’s BlackBerry 10?
It seems great. We all really want the new BlackBerry to be successful. For so long it was the first and only real smart-phone device. The question will be whether you can get developer and consumer buy-in. BlackBerry’s major users are big companies and government because they are good for security.
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