For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved elections. I get as tired of the repetitive commercials as fast as anyone, but looking at anything on the broad scale is not only interesting to me as a marketer, but also as an SEO. I’m going to try and keep this as balanced as I can. I obviously have my own biases, but whenever I mention one campaign doing something, I’ll try and find a similar example from the other. Lord knows they’re all guilty to some extent.
The Black PR Machine
Think of the american people as links, and the whole thing breaks down perfectly like an algorithm, and the ‘big players’ and news hubs ironically like a blackhat setup. The methods (both) campaigns used directly and indirectly to spread black PR was absolutely fascinating, and not dissimilar to the processes used to attract legitimate links via less legitimate ones to overall build authority in (at least my version of) internet marketing. Each side had their ‘blackhat’ (non-reliable) sites. For the dems this would be dailykos, for the republicans freerepublic and the drudge report. These take snippets of other media(like a scraper), then spin them to their respective bias. All are note legitimate enough themselves to gain attention of truly mainstream media, or be cited in any significant publication.
So what do they do? Launder the information. If you can take the political message pushed out by one of the propaganda sites, and get it to be rapidly picked up by sites that lean towards the same bias(but not as extreme), it generates a buzz not only amongst the supporting sites, but creates conflict amongst the partisan sites on the other side of the political spectrum. From the moment this conflict is created, it’s given credibility. Newspapers and stations(generally) want to avoid stories that have only one visible side(whether they represent both is a crapshoot) because anything else reeks of a stealthy PR release. So having successfully spread the concept from extreme to (more) moderate sources, it spreads into the mainstream. Fantastic, eh?
Why does it have to be so involved? It’s because the candidates themselves don’t want to have their own names tied to the dirty message. For example(for better or worse is your opinion) you’ll notice a lot of the comments that Palin was saying(socialist, terrorist, marxist, etc) were more or less restricted from John McCain’s speeches. This also happened at the same time as her “going rogue”. See the subtle disconnection that relieves him of responsibility for her? She’s “going rogue”, not relaying “his message”, even though that message happens to benefit him.
To be fair, the same thing was done by the democrats, but with them it was done through more substantial blogger/youth support; an excellent means for spreading a message disconnected from the candidate themselves. And much less traceable. So it’s tricky to find a comparison here.
Similar things happen in the SEO world constantly. We are taking the buzz we can build up through our own tightly connected networks of friends and sites, and attempting to get that buzz spread into the mainstream. Chances are news direct from our site(essentially a press release) won’t have an impact, and neither will sites too closely tied to ours(implied bias). But as that message/link spreads further and further from our niche, it becomes more credible and accepted.
Now to the offline world of elections. They’re getting efficient: breaking down the demographics of their potential voters(a niche), finding out if they have a chance to control that demographic(ranking), and then attempt to saturate it with branding. Prime examples of this are Obama taking out advertisements in popular video games. The youth demographic was identified as a group that has a lot of pull on the internet, interested, and easier to convert than their older counterparts. So they were targetted hard. Fun fact: For 18-25 year old males on facebook there was always at least 1 Barack Obama ad in the top 3 most common ads, and another 2 not far behind.
So looking at that from an SEO perspective, we’ll think of each demographic of voters as a niche to control, and each vote as a link. On an individual basis, each niche must be built up to have any substantial affects. For example: all the video game and facebook ads in the world won’t reach a substantial amount of senior citizens. So they must be approached in a different way, but feeding back into the same concept.
The Niche Breakup
I like to think of the election demographic breakdown as an attempt to recreate wikipedia, but with linkbait. The whole(or 51%) must be interested in the same platform(wikipedia). Now considering peoples different biases and the different emphasis they place on different things, this must be done by altering the message to each group(like a landing page that changes based on referring keyword).
Each demographic in each region gets an assigned significance. For example, Barack Obama went hard after the youth vote, taking out ads in major video games, several ads on facebook for the male demographic, and a variety of other means. This is because part of Barack’s strategy was saturation of media and control of message. The youth/bloggers are harder to control, but also have enough of a degree of seperation from the campaign that it is not necessarilly held responsible for their actions. This creates the demand and market for the mainstream media to cash in on. With the constant buzz surrounding the candidate, it makes sense to them to run stories about him.
McCain on the other hand had a difficult task. He had to deliver different messages to different demographics. He had to take the religious conservative and appease them(hence the introduction of Palin), and not scare off the centrists/independents. By largely keeping Palin off of media aside from places that appealed to her niche demographic (think Fox News and more southern sources) he was more able to send an economic message to the less religious areas without interference. Note that towards the end of the campaign that last part did change.
To me, this obviously speaks heavily to PPC and traditional banner buys, but beyond that is absolutely fascinating to look at from as a linkbait scheme. It’s using the same resources to convey different messages from different sources that benefit the same (central) source. Almost like a site network? Related Site/CandidateA pushes view X to control demographic Y, then funnels it’s power back into the money site/campaign. At the same time, Related Site/VP Candidate pushes view Z to an entirely different demographic, but benefiting the same money site. Absolutely fantastic.
The Authority Sites
As with SEO, your power and ultimately your authority is determined largely by your acceptance level by the power players in that industry. Instead of buying links, support is bought via pandering and promises. But the support from that person isn’t the big deal. The support from the visitors/supporters of the supporter is the significance. They have the ability to fuel the black PR mentioned at the beginning of this entry via essentially untraceable means. This was actually used by Rev. Falwell against McCain when he ran against Bush in the primaries the first time around. Remember the ‘illegitimate black baby’ rumor? That was orchestrated by Falwell(who supported Bush) and disseminated through his ranks as a whisper campaign. The same thing was done this time around with Obama being muslim.
So once again, how to apply this to SEO? Well, first pick apart the definition of “authority”. An authority link for these purposes is not just a powerful link, but rather a powerful link that controls a niche. The higher visibility of your link within a certain demographic is worth more than it’s weight in the algorithm(or an endorsement on paper). It’s the reach it gives you, and your ability to use it to pull more power into your site.
Bringing it All Together as an SEO/Marketing Campaign
Ok. So we obviously don’t have quite the audience of a candidate, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can learn a lot from how they run their campaigns.
So the first thing of theirs I’d hit on as significant is how to create your own citations. You put something up on a blog or on a site and are looking to try and get that message out. The first thing to look at would be the other sites that would agree/disagree with your idea/product/buzz, and find out which ones are most closely connected/more referenced by less niche and more mainstream media. These are going to be the goal. Saturating or getting mentioned in these sites is the best bet to get propelled into the mainstream. Find out the sites they mention closest to your own, and start advertising. Links, guest posts, whatever. Anything to get recognized by those that agree with you that are closest to the goal.
Another thing I would get out of this is the benefit of anonymity. The ability to have sockpuppets, or closely controlled “media” outlets. The ability to start e-mail chainletters that are seen by millions, but never have a tie back to any entity. The ability to control not only the message, but the source. Source is everything.
Hopefully I’ve managed to keep my own bias out of this(I’m a lib), but it’s pretty tricky to do.
PS: Am I correct to assume there’s a market here? You don’t generally see black PR companies in the yellow pages.