'Going Viral': Political Candidates' Quest to Create the Next YouTube Sensation 'Going Viral': Political Candidates' Quest to Create the Next YouTube Sensation
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'Going Viral': Political Candidates' Quest to Create the Next YouTube Sensation

by Sam Graham-Felsen

December 16, 2011

The video did go viral—it’s been viewed more than 1.3 million times (I admit I still occasionally check the stats today)—so I asked my boss if we could feature it on the campaign’s donation page. He agreed to run a split test over a few days: half of site visitors would see my video on the page, while the other half would see a cheesy, black-and-white image of the Obama family. If my video earned more donations, it could stay. The Hallmark card photo absolutely destroyed my video in the test, and the video was yanked from the donate page for eternity.

It’s nearly impossible to predict what will catch on—and even when something does hit the viral jackpot, it’s not clear that it will deliver much more than a temporary shift in the media narrative, and at best, a bump in the polls. More often than not, the viral videos that matter—the ones that don’t just shift the poll numbers, but the culture—don’t come from campaigns, but from volunteers. From the brilliant “Barocky” videos to the star-studded “Yes We Can,” supporter videos helped build the narrative of Obama for America as a once-in-a-lifetime movement, not just a political campaign. An official video will never match the gritty, bottom-up authenticity of user-generated content.

Yet despite the difficulty in predicting whether videos will go viral and the seemingly negligible effects when they do, campaigns will continue to strive for the white whale of new media—especially if Perry’s homophobic rant helps him place well in the Iowa caucuses. Is it worth the obsessive effort?

Chris Royalty, deputy video director of Obama ’08, calls viral videos an “elusive harbinger of success that distracts staff from producing work that matters,” adding that “It's a better allocation of resources to focus on videos that tell your story in an authentic way to the people that matter to you than to grasp at millions of views for a single video.” Indeed, much of Royalty and his team’s focus was on creating targeted constituency-focused videos that featured ordinary volunteers talking about Obama, from Seniors for Obama to Jewish Americans for Obama to state-specific videos like Road to Change: Texas. None of these videos struck viral gold, but they were precisely the kind of content that led to meaningful, personalized sharing (“See, Bob, I told you his campaign was reaching out to seniors!”). And because the campaign uploaded 2,000 videos (five times more than the closest competitor) there was an option for nearly every niche.

Campaigns will continue to spend hundreds of millions, mostly on television advertising; this cycle, we’ll see more than $6 billion spent. But there is no better persuasion tool than a personal endorsement. This is the inherent power of online videos: Unlike television ads, which interrupt us from what we want to be watching, we usually watch a YouTube clip is because someone we know and trust told us to. In many cases, the personal message that accompanies the link matters just as much as the video itself: “This is hilarious” or “Weird video!” is not the same as, “I think you’ll relate to this because…” In other words, what’s truly important is not how often a video is shared, but how it is shared.

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'Going Viral': Political Candidates' Quest to Create the Next YouTube Sensation