Memo to Hillary and Barack: YouTube Is a Two-Headed Beast

She’s up, she’s down and out, she’s up again. He’s way back, he’s way ahead, he’s being caught from behind. The 2008 Democratic Primary sounds like a Disney After School Special about the family racehorse. Or maybe it’s Wheel of Fortune – he wins, she spins; she wins, he spins. They’re both aiming for the Pennsylvania Avenue four-year vacation package. At least it’ll feel like a vacation by the time this election is over.

Last fall, Oneupweb started looking at what both the Republicans and Democrats were doing online to promote their candidacy. We found that none of their high-priced web marketing consultants bothered to optimize for even the most basic campaign search terms. The websites themselves varied from predictable to innovative and interesting. As the campaigns have proceeded the sites have gotten more in-depth and targeted. But still no serious optimization.

And some of the navigation is downright frustrating. A search for Barack Obama can lead you to a fund solicitation with a self-starting video message from the candidate. As entertaining as you may find his appeal for help, the rest of the rather extensive and well-laid out website is hidden from you, unless you happen – there are no directions to do so – to click on the candidates’ name or quote in the left hand corner. One wonders how many people doing a quick search have given up and gone elsewhere.

Online media watchers have been disappointed by the market share online ads have been receiving. The gross numbers are up considerably, but the percentage of media spending hasn’t moved from TV to online as many predicted. Online fundraising has hit record numbers, building on the story Howard Dean first wrote in 2004. But ads are generally narrow in focus with the majority buying the candidate’s name, rather than issue keywords or an opponent’s name.

The true winner in the online political media wars are the social networking communities. The official Barack Obama website includes links to 16 different networks, Hillary Clinton lists six and John McCain has none, unless you count his own McCainSpace community of supporters.

It was no accident that Obama and Clinton both chose to do cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live in the lead-up to the Texas and Ohio primaries. The clips were all over YouTube afterward. Here, Clinton did Obama one better. On the eve of the election, she appeared by satellite on The Daily Show. Her self-deprecating, “it’s pitiful, isn’t it” response to Jon Stewart’s question about why she was wasting her very precious time talking to him, was shown on nearly every news website, as well as YouTube, stealing the online spotlight just when it was needed.

If social media marketing is the story for campaign 2008, it’ll be interesting to see how candidates embrace social networking after a taste of its dark side, where rumors and major mistakes are magnified and passed and gassed virally. The Obama camp may think the Muslim rumors have been their test, but that’s a minor annoyance compared to what could happen. The swift boats haven’t left their pen, the “I voted for it before I voted against it” quote has yet to be uttered and rehashed daily on YouTube and 40,000 political blogs.

The campaigns’ ability to quench a real viral wildfire is yet to be tested. And sooner or later it will be. This show will only get more riveting.

Other StraightUpSearch blog posts in this series:

Democratic Debate – Capitalizing on Heated Exchanges

McCain Buys Hillary. Mitt Buys A Bunch. Others By Stand.

The 2008 Presidential Race Online & Personal