Nov 06, 2012

Four Strategies that Rocked the Web During the 2012 Election—Steal Them!

The last three elections have inspired a ton of creativity in the digital space. American voters, it seems, make great early adopters for companies looking to transform how we connect to each other and to our world., for one, built a new way to meet and organize any kind of group, and was originally used to power the Howard Dean campaign. was likewise launched during the 2008 presidential campaign by former Washington Post reporters who created a new way to deliver political news.

What I will remember best about this 2012 presidential election are the images and videos that were shared widely and rapidly on social networks. Some went viral so fast that, just hours after they were created, you felt like you were the last to know.

This year, campaigns, companies, and organizations are breaking through all the noise on the web with smart strategies for planning and creating meaningful videos and images that are resonating with people.

Here are four of them:

1. It better be visual.

During this election, viral images and videos were created and shared lightning fast.

An hour after Gov. Romney uttered the phrase “binders full of women” during the second presidential debate, a Tumblr website was created to share funny images of women in binders and a Facebook fan page. Video of Clint Eastwood and his RNC convention speech to an empty chair has more than 2,400,000 views on YouTube. A video of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, taken surreptitiously at a private fundraiser, dubbed the “47 percent” video, went viral the day it was released (by Mother Jones on Sept. 17), hugely influencing public discourse and driving the news agenda. The video now has more than 3,250,000 views on YouTube.

Powerful visuals, which possess a kind of emotional impact that words alone cannot express, stand out from a sea of text and increase your chance of resonating with the people you want to reach—and there are stats to back this up.

On Tumblr, the microblogging and social network, photos average about twice as many comments as quotes, and four times more comments on links.

The other part that’s making image and video sharing so widespread is that, within the past year, technologies have gotten better at helping us all create and share visual media. The speed at which YouTube videos stream is, on average, nearly three times faster than in 2010. And in the U.S., we’re all watching about twice as many videos per month as we did in 2009.

New apps that enable and inspire image sharing, like Pinterest and Instagram, have also had a huge influence. They’ve made us better visual people—better at creating and editing visual media.  

Likewise, older apps and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly more visual, surfacing more videos and images. On Facebook, as of the end of last year, users uploaded more than 250 million photos to the site each day. It is the service, by and large, where the viral political videos and images are picking up shares, views, and comments.

Upworthy, a new digital media company launched this March to “make meaningful stories go viral,” is a good example of a company taking advantage of this trend during the election this fall. In September, the company had 6 million unique visitors, and its Facebook page had 600,000 likes. Yesterday, the company was named the “fastest growing media company in the world” by Business Insider.

The team behind Upworthy—Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook; Peter Koechley, a former editor from The Onion; and Eli Pariser, a board president of—has been generously sharing their strategies. This summer Upworthy staff gave a presentation about “Winning the Interwebs Through Sexier Shares and Epic Visuals” at the Netroots Nation Conference. In it, they underscored the importance of images and videos to their strategy:

Running organizations or companies with tight budgets might seem like a tall order. Generating good story ideas or things to say is hard enough—now we need to hire a photographer/videographer? Probably.

If you’re trying to get a message heard on the Web, a visual isn't as much a nice-to-have as it is an essential part of getting through to your audience.

2. But don't forget the words.

It’s not images alone that help messages get shared. It’s also about the words that accompany them.

Upworthy recommends writing 25 headlines and choosing the best one based on its ability to reflect a sense of urgency and pique people’s curiosity. Also, they say, you should include a call to action, especially if you’re a “worthy cause.” For example “donate now” or “share this.”

Additionally, a lot of the images being shared widely during this election have words pasted directly within the image itself. Usually these are witty, funny, or include facts that speak to an audience’s shared fears, desires, and concerns. The messages are created to be passed along to others:

Why do people share these types of messages online? The Consumer Insight Group at The New York Times did a study on this called “The Psychology of Sharing.” The study suggests that part of why we share things on the Web is to tell people about who we are, and to get the word out about causes we care about—which speaks to the impulse to share our political beliefs with our networks on the Web.

From “The Psychology of Sharing”From “The Psychology of Sharing”

(From “The Psychology of Sharing”)

3. Don't miss your moment.

Part of being strategic about your content is considering the context of your audience, and part of that context is what is happening in the world at large. The world moves quickly, so don’t miss your chance to publish. For instance, no one was sharing images about Clint Eastwood during the Town Hall debate. That meme was quickly eclipsed by the images of “binders full of women.” And the Facebook page for “Binders Full of Women?” On October 17th, the page saw its highest level of engagement, followed by a steep decline the next day:

So, as important as it is to plan and create amazing images, videos, and messages, it’s just as important to use your judgement to seize the moment. People move on quickly.

4. Make it super-shareable.

Campaigns, companies, and organizations with strategies that “won the interwebs” this election aren’t worried about driving traffic to their particular site or platform. They aren’t trying to collect followers and page views on their website. Their biggest concern is connecting with their audience where they already are online.

“Whether its finding new community members or sharing content, Facebook is so powerful we've shifted the way we've allocated resources internally and engaged with voters,” Zach Moffatt, Digital Director on the Mitt Romney for President Campaign, told TechCrunch this fall. “If people aren't taking action based on what you're doing, the whole point is lost.”

The companies that are getting their messages heard are creating content that is portable, and is made to be shared and distributed across multiple platforms, channels, and sites. They’re perfecting the science of creating and delivering meaningful images and videos that get seen and shared, and consequently become a part of the conversation.

This year YouTube streamed the presidential and vice presidential debates live for the first time. In sum, the videos streamed and watched later from those events were viewed 24 million times—a big win for the YouTube Politics team.

Though YouTube created a special landing page and app for the occasion, their strategy was leveraged through partnerships. ABC was their main media partner. YouTube also partnered with others including BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera.

Mother Jones put its video of Romney at a private fundraiser on YouTube, marked with its logo. Clara Jeffery, a co-editor of Mother Jones, told The New York Times that within 12 hours of the video’s publication more than 348,000 Twitter posts related to “47%” or #47 percent.

Where was the traffic coming from? According to YouTube stats, the first bump came from an embed on the German news site The second source of traffic came from Facebook. The third bump came from Upworthy, who repackaged the video and shared it with its audience:

The return on investment of a single video shared from Mother Jones, individually packaged for sharing, was huge. Mother Jones, a lesser-known progressive media publication, found itself at the helm of the mainstream media news agenda, driving the conversation.

There's new thinking that is helping the way organizations influence the Web. It’s not about your company’s website; it’s about any and all the ways that the people you are trying to reach are connecting with meaningful messages that resonate with them and their communities.

"We're not trying to keep people on the site very much," Eli Pariser told Business Insider. "We want them to view the content, share it, subscribe to it, and go on their way. We figure we'll be able to reach back out to them again."