How YouTube Used Obama Chat to Build Brand

For Google, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and follow-up YouTube interview was a golden chance to boost the company’s YouTube brand. For marketers, the YouTube SOTU campaign is an opportune lesson: who better to show you how to leverage branded social media and video than YouTube itself?

The centerpiece of the effort was YouTube soliciting user questions – preferably via video – to ask Obama, within certain categories. People were also asked to vote on the questions of others. More than 140,000 questions were submitted – a whopping ten times more than when YouTube held its first presidential interview a year ago. The 200,000 people who participated also cast 1.4 million votes regarding the crowdsourced questions. Here’s how they did it.

Step One
To get people involved with the State of the Union, YouTube streamed the speech live supported with several interactive features. As the speech streamed, users could see infographics and charts, a video telling the history of the State of the Union address, a rotating fun facts box, an app showing who was sitting with the First Lady, and a video request for questions for the YouTube presidential interview two days later. Sharing was encouraged. The speech’s focus on innovation and technology reinforced the online bells and whistles – clicking around seemed downright patriotic.

Such online video presentations will up the ante in 2011, says Michael Kolowich, CEO of KnowledgeVision Systems. They offer more ways for viewers to interact, “which gives marketers more data about which viewers are truly engaged, by observing the way they click around the interactive experience and on the links,” he says.

Step Two
An initial video seeking questions was a narrated with a calm, rational tone, and the next day a second video was added and pushed around the social networks. Crafted by AKQA, the newer video took an emotional approach, with rousing music, bold images and no narration, seeming a lot like an anthemic TV ad. Within hours it attracted almost as many views – about 280,000 – as the initial video.

Step Three
YouTube’s social media pitch was that users selected questions. Indeed, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics. who conducted the live interview with Obama, told CBS News, “It wasn’t really me interviewing the president. It was the 140,000 people who submitted questions online and the millions of folks who voted.” As many marketers know, the social universe is far from controllable. Both last year and this year, most of the user questions concerned the legalization of marijuana and the War on Drugs, even though that didn’t fall under any of recommended categories. In fact, 198 of the 200 top videos were tied to drug policy. But all that user interest was boiled down to a single video question, shown in the later part of the interview. No mention was given to the overwhelming number of votes the drug topic garnered. By way of explanation, Grove blogged that his team removed duplicate questions and then “looked at the top five percent of the questions to pick which questions to pose.”

Step Four
To emphasize the point that it was a social media-generated interview, not business-as-usual, Grove added personal questions to the mix. Obama answered queries about his favorite college class (a political science class at Occidental College), his favorite scientist (a mathematician at Harvard) and his Valentine’s gift for Michelle (a date night). Grove also mentioned the YouTube name repeatedly, asked a question about Obama’s favorite YouTube videos and threw in seemingly off-handed plugs, such as “Oh, time flies when you are watching YouTube videos.”

In all, YouTube used the Obama interview to enhance the gravitas of its brand and build awareness of the company’s effort to become a global interactive news outlet, rivaling TV. A YouTube spokesperson confirmed, “We’re expanding this YouTube Interview program globally as part of YouTube World View. A series of interviews in 2011 will give people the chance to engage in conversation with their elected officials and other influential people from the world of business, philanthropy, technology, media and the arts.” In other words, Mr. President, YouTube the marketer says thanks.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.