What Marketers Can Learn From an Extreme Event

ClickZ Campaign 08 Election Coverage There’s almost no live event like a debate between U.S. presidential candidates. “People watch debates for the same reason people watch the Indy 500: to see who crashes and burns,” said Roger Simon chief political columnist of Politico.

Traditional marketers can learn a great deal from how the presidential campaigns and the news media and bloggers that cover them behave before, during, and after the debates to shape voters’ perceptions of the debates themselves.

This election’s outcome won’t be determined online. Nor will it be determined by television advertisements. It will be created by real events and the impression those events leave regarding each candidate’s ability to lead.

The real events that will loom largest in many voters’ minds will be the debates. And the debates reach their audience. According to the Diageo Hotline Poll, nearly two-thirds of registered voters watched the most recent debate. And this year, both candidates are using online techniques to capture these events’ positive energy or divert the negative outcomes.

Every marketer either stages, joins, or unexpectedly finds herself an unwilling participant in a live event, which will determine how customers view a company’s reputation. Increasingly, consumers are using digital channels to understand and interact with brands in conjunction with real events. Certainly, Victoria’s Secret is an example of marketing that intentionally puts significant effort into creating digital attention for its fashion show. And who isn’t going online to see how their financial institution is perceived to be surviving the current storm?

In this column, I’ll monitor the intersections between the digital and real worlds during the rest of the U.S. presidential campaign to give traditional marketers some insights that they can use. Today, I’ll offer some insight from the first presidential debate.

Pre-Debate: Gather the Supporters

The time to capture the attention of the people who support you the most is before a big event. It’s the time to get them engaged and ask them not just to watch but to influence others.

The Sunday morning before the presidential debate, when political junkies around the country were reading the Sunday papers, catching up on the blogs, and getting ready for the televised talk shows, I observed the following online:

  • In Google, the keywords “presidential debate” generated a sponsored link from Barack Obama’s campaign.

  • The John McCain Web site was silent about the debate.
  • MySpace, the online partner of the Commission on Presidential Debate, was soliciting questions to be posed at the debate itself.

By midweek, both campaigns had online debate centers to encourage people to create watch parties.

Of course, pre-debate organizing was stalled by the dramatic events involving the bipartisan bail-out package for the U.S.’s financial sector. The events included a call for postponing the debate. By Friday, it was clear the debate would happen as scheduled. I received an e-mail from Joe Biden at 5:42 p.m. that day, reminding me to watch the debate at 9 p.m. and asking me to volunteer and donate. I received no such e-mail from the McCain campaign. (I registered with both campaigns so that I could accurately report for this column.)

During the Debate

The debate was a social experience, and the campaigns tried to capture that social energy to create positive perceptions about themselves and negative perceptions about their opponents.

The campaigns had bloggers stimulating conversation. The news outlets and bloggers posted charged headlines every turn of the debate. It was virtually impossible to watch the debate, whether online or on television, without being told by media pundits and partisans how to interpret the debate dialogue. On television, the cable news outlets showed real-time pundit scorecards and dial tests. Online, the cable networks deployed split screens to show snarky pundits comment on the debate in real time.

After the Debate

Debate content is used afterwards to shape the perceived debate outcome, no matter how the debate actually went.

“The Washington Post” Media Notes critic Howard Kurtz observed: “The moment each debate ends, the candidates, their aides and their surrogates will try to shape the coverage to their advantage. And if history is any guide, such full-court spinning can steal a victory after the clock has expired.”

The McCain camp was the first to get an e-mail into my inbox following the debate’s conclusion. The Obama campaign filmed a commercial about the debate.

Meanwhile, “The Washington Post” posted a full transcript of the debate annotated with facts and commentary — to benefit those who actually care about the truth rather than the spin.

The Bottom Line for Marketers

Online activities can enhance a real event’s impact. It can shape expectations and the experience itself before, during, and after.

We have three debates to go: Thursday, October 2 (vice-presidential); Tuesday, October 7; and Wednesday, October 15. Watch them not to just to be better informed. Watch them to get some insights on how to best integrate digital experiences and live events.

Want more campaign information? Check out our ClickZ News Campaign ’08 section for the latest news and analysis.

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