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Lessons from Obamas Search Engine Marketing Campaign

The 2008 campaign trail extended from coast to coast--and onto the World Wide Web. Barack Obamas team wielded search engine marketing as a powerful tool for getting across the message and getting out the vote. The result? Record voter turnout and a historic victory.

By contrast, the business world has a modest goal: convincing customers to buy. To achieve this daily victory, companies can take a page or two out of the Obama campaigns SEM playbook.

Hone the Message
Instant ROI is one of the biggest selling points of search engine marketing. Unlike traditional media advertising, online advertising is accountable. Obamas campaign was able to "track how many people clicked to sign a Web petition or donate, and determine how much each of those sign-ups or donations actually cost." Based on these metrics, the campaign was able to adjust its spending to get the best results.

Businesses can similarly track the performance of a search engine marketing campaign and apply their advertising budgets to best advantage. Online advertising enables businesses to adjust the campaign "live", experimenting with different keywords and messages in order to find the sweet spot of the campaign, somewhere between cost and effect.

Target the Audience
Search engine marketing
is smart, using behavioral targeting to serve ads relevant to the users search terms. The Obama team took full advantage of targeting features--not only to communicate Obamas message to interested parties, but also to protect and burnish their candidates brand. Targeting enabled the team to direct potential supporters to information about specific issues--a search term like "agricultural policy" would retrieve a high-ranked result explaining the candidates position. But the strategy also enabled Obama to protect his public image by refuting negative attacks. For example, the search term "Obama domestic terrorist" cued ads for an Obama-sponsored Web site called

Businesses already rely on SEM to target interested customers, who have essentially qualified themselves by typing a search term. But Obamas brand management strategy suggests a broader application of search engine marketing. The Internet is a powerful medium capable of spreading negative publicity fast. Advertising on damaging search terms can help companies protect their brand and if necessary, control fallout from negative publicity.

The core of any campaign is a committed group of grassroots activists. The Obama team used search engine marketing techniques to motivate Internet surfers to action. A GoogleAds sidebar doesnt invite much engagement with the viewer. But Obamas marketing pros created interactive features such as the Obama Tax Calculator, which appeared in connection with the search term Joe the Plumber (a vocal critic of Obamas tax policy who became an icon of the tax debate). Surfers were encouraged to see for themselves what impact Obamas tax policy would have on them by inputting their data into this interactive feature.

Companies can follow suit, fostering a bond between their brand and customer base through creative interactive features. Clos du Bois vineyards, for example, hired a team of interactive marketing specialists to create an independent site that would let users share first-kiss stories. The forum was designed to create an association between romance and the Clos du Bois brand.

Obama managed to motivate some 69 million voters to support his cause at the polls, in part through his teams search marketing efforts. Businesses can use similar tactics to lay claim to their fair share of the market. Search engines offer a powerful marketing medium that political candidates--and businesses--cant afford to ignore.


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