What We Can Learn from Donkeys, Elephants and Sarah Palin

October 28, 2010

It’s not very often people compare small business to big government; much less comment on how Washington is doing something efficiently. But it seems the boys in the big (white) house know a thing or two about social media.

Barack Obama and social media changed the way American politics campaign the same way John F. Kennedy and television did 50 years ago. Known as the “Internet President,” Obama managed to organize, advertise and defend his presidential campaign on an unprecedented scale.

“Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee,” said Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of The Huffington Post, in a 2008 New York Times article.

So what can small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs) learn from Capitol Hill’s social media tactics? Three major takeaways: invest, adapt, listen.


The cost of advertising on social media outlets is low compared to traditional television, radio and print mediums. And you’re reaching an extremely targeted audience. Joe Trippi, a political consultant and leader of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, points out that social media campaigns are more effective because viewers choose to watch them or received them from a friend rather than being bombarded or interrupted by ads.

YouTube is a great source for free advertising. SMBs can invest advertising dollars on higher-quality videos and post on YouTube for the cost of signing up for a free account. Obama’s campaign took advantage of YouTube and, while your restaurant’s channel might not go viral like the President’s, the ROI is still great.

“The campaign’s official stuff they created for YouTube was watched for 14.5 million hours,” Mr. Trippi said. “To buy 14.5 million hours on broadcast TV is $47 million.”

And the Republicans are finally catching on.

The Grand Old Party (GOP) recently invested $16,000 toward an awareness campaign for the 2010 general election. A Twitter hashtag, widgets, and circulating links around the social mediasphere turned into a fundraiser on Facebook which raised $1.6 million. Quite the return.

To take advantage of all social media has to offer, you have to make the initial step of investing your time and budget toward it. Trust us, it’s worth it.


Once you’ve invested, you have to be ready to adapt. The great thing about social media is, well, it’s social. The views, demands, needs and outlets are constantly changing to adapt to the audience.

Two presidential elections ago, the goal of a campaign’s online presence was to push out persuasive information to sway undecided voters. In 2004, Howard Dean’s campaign revolutionized the use of the Internet in making an online campaign to “fire up the base.” Obama was able to leverage his huge online network to volunteer and campaign locally.

Needs change. Be ready and open. Social media for your business is a tool; it’s not a rigid business plan, and it’s not set in stone. Research what your audience wants and find out the best way to deliver it to them. Today it might be through a discount code on Facebook Ads; tomorrow it might be a mobile-scannable barcode on a subway car ad.



You’ve heard it over and over again. You’re probably tired of hearing it. But we’re going to say it again. The most important thing in social media is to LISTEN.

Today, 76 percent of Congress is using social media and more than half have Facebook pages. Twitter and YouTube experts are a must on campaign trails. Social media is the way constituents today are communicating with politicians.

And they’re listening. Sam Aurora, a candidate running for the House of Delegates in Maryland is using social media tools to connect with voters he meets door-to-door. He believes these initial contacts can turn into sustained relationships, and, if he wins, he can use those online relationships to gauge opinions on important issues.

Social media is a conversation, not a dialogue. If you put a lot of effort into investing and adapting, but don’t stop to really listen to what your online network is telling you, you’re not going to succeed in social media. Period.

Clients and customers, just like constituents, like to feel like their voice is being heard. Business and politics have to be personal; you have to make a connection with your people. Social media outlets are bridging this gap like never before, and it’s up to you not to leave them halfway across the canyon.

Listening and then engaging your online network builds a relationship, confidence and trust. It also allows customers (and voters) to relate to you and/or your business.

That’s a good thing, Mr. Trippi said. “This medium demands authenticity, and television for the most part demanded fake. Authenticity is something politicians haven’t been used to.

What can you do for your SMB social media plan? Invest, adapt, listen. You’ll always have the occasional guffaw, but we’ve got a lot to learn from Congress on how to leverage social media.

Luckily, they also teach us what NOT to do.

Just ask Sarah Palin. Palin rallied Pennsylvanians to vote for Republican senatorial candidate John Raese with Twitter. The catch? Raese is running for Senate in West Virginia where his residency has been a hot issue. Oops.

Things won’t always go as planned, but, as social media mistakes become more commonplace, their cost decreases – which, in turn, encourages more authenticity. Which is what social media is all about.

Happy Twittering, Facebooking, YouTubing and more,
The PeopleMatter Institute

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