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How YouTube has transformed the 2012 presidential election

In the last presidential election, when the buxom "Obama girl" publicized her crush on the candidate in a nasal croon, it was not just an amateur campaign ad. It was a testament to the growing influence of online video to the world of political advertising.

While 2008 may have been the first presidential race where YouTube played a role, this election the site's influence is picking up speed as the cycle of communications becomes ever more voracious.

"In 2008, you saw candidates start to get their feet wet with YouTube. You saw Obama uploading a lot of videos … but what really stole the show was the parody videos, like Obama girl," said Ramya Raghavan, politics manager at YouTube. "This year we're seeing politicians mastering their campaigns." (Though, of course, parody content is still a factor this time.)

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Among the trends the YouTube team has spotted are candidates uploading different videos to target different regions, and also attempting to take control of the media cycle. Barack Obama's deputy campaign manager, for example, has been regularly appearing in YouTube videos to comment on developments throughout the election. While that has not replaced TV appearances, it is another way to make sure the target messages are heard.

"These campaigns have their own television network at their fingertips," she said.

Some of that rapid response existed in 2008, of course. For example, when controversy broke out over remarks by Mr. Obama's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the candidate released a four-minute video response. The cycle of response videos is much faster this campaign however, Ms. Raghavan said. The Wesleyan Media Project, an academic study tracking campaign advertising, has also taken note of the shift.

"They're getting smarter than they were in 2008, and trying to develop videos that people will actually watch," said one of the project leaders, Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University.

"They've learned from past campaigns that you can't just let a charge sit … but they don't necessarily want to go on the air to millions of people saying, 'My opponent claims this, it's not true.' So it might be effective to make something small that goes online," he said. "…It speeds up the cycle for sure."

The team at YouTube has also noticed that campaigns will sometimes upload multiple versions of the same video, suggesting that they may be testing out videos online and tweaking them depending on the response. This is something that mainstream advertisers have already been doing – watching analytics for signs, for example, of what point in a video that viewers are dropping off and cutting them accordingly, or making changes to address negative responses.

YouTube's parent company, Google Inc., is promoting the video platform to campaigns as part of a larger sales strategy it has tailored to political advertising , including offering targeting through search advertising, contextually relevant ads on websites, and website optimization for mobile devices.

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YouTube has seen political campaigns experimenting more with its advertising options – for example, during the Democratic convention, the Obama campaign bought space on the homepage masthead, and rather than running a static ad there, it showed a live video feed of Mr. Obama's speech. Livestreaming in the masthead ad space is a relatively new phenomenon for YouTube. Even advertisers have rarely experimented with it. Last October, GM Canada hosted an event in Toronto's Dundas Square with a car giveaway, that the company livestreamed this way, and it was the first time a livestream had been run in the masthead in Canada. The Democrats' move was unprecedented for political advertising in the U.S.

"That's certainly something we hadn't seen before," Ms. Raghavan said.

  • 2.7-billion: number of times since the beginning of the election cycle in mid-2011 that videos mentioning “Obama” or “Romney” have been viewed on YouTube – out of 370,000 videos uploaded
  • 150-million: number of times since the beginning of the election cycle in mid-2011 that official campaign videos posted by both candidates have been viewed
  • 4-billion: average daily audience on YouTube – an increase over 2008, when the daily viewership was in the hundreds of millions
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