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Who's Winning the YouTube War, Obama or Romney?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, October 24 2012

Obama Denver rally live on YouTube, October 24, 2012

In the last month, from September 23 to October 23, Barack Obama's campaign has posted 256 videos to its YouTube channel, garnering 22.4 million views, according to the video tracking service (formerly part of TubeMogul). Mitt Romney's campaign has posted just 44 videos, earning just 4.7 million views. On a per video basis, Romney is getting slightly more views on average, 107,000 to 88,000. But in terms of reaching voters and supporters, the Obama campaign is trouncing Romney on YouTube.

This matters for several reasons. The first is money. While it costs the Obama campaign something to produce all these videos, the costs of distribution are close to zero. Exactly four years ago on this site, I asked Democratic strategist Joe Trippi to estimate the value of Obama's YouTube videos, in terms of how many TV advertising dollars it would take to obtain that many individual views multiplied by video length. Using an average media market, Trippi's back of the envelope math suggested that Obama's massive YouTube viewership back then was worth around $46 million, almost 40 times more than John McCain's much smaller online audience. While we don't have a breakdown for the total number of minutes watched in the last month of Obama or Romney videos, the same logic must hold. Obama's "earned media" advantage over Romney on YouTube is huge.

The second reason this matters is that you can't force people to watch a YouTube video the way you can with a TV ad (or at least, the way you used to before the advent of Tivo and channel-surfing). YouTube video views are an indication of pro-active interest. The fact that Obama is beating Romney daily on YouTube--even in the last two weeks since the first debate and Romney's reported surge in the polls--ought to be of greater note.

The third reason is more subtle and is more a sign of the differing online strategies of the two campaigns. As we have been reporting here on techPresident for months, the Romney campaign is not trying to match Obama dollar-for-dollar or social media splash for social media splash or even app for app. The bulk of their online focus is on targeted advertising, both as a means to mobilize their base and to find and persuade swing voters. Yes, the Romney campaign has its "MyMitt" social network, and it sends out plenty of emails seeking small donations, and it is working to engage its supporters in making phone calls from home using an online call tool. But it really hasn't tried to maximize those numbers. You might think of the Romney strategy online as mainly aimed at the fat(cat?) head of the long tail of GOP voters. Its approach to YouTube has been mostly big picture, with just an occasional nod at narrowcasting (such as this recent video aimed at swing voters in Colorado).

The Obama team, on the other hand, is definitely interested not just in its biggest donors but also in their own long tail of grass-roots supporters, seeing them as a potent source of money and volunteer time. Many of its YouTube videos reflect this approach. There are some that are aimed across Obama's whole base, like an October 3rd video commemorating the Obama's 20th wedding anniversary, which has gotten nearly a million views so far. But many are highly targeted, either by geography or constituency. Today, for example, I received an email from David Axelrod urging me to watch Obama's remarks from the last debate on Israel; this because I'm signed up on the campaign's Jewish Americans list. A glance at the campaign's YouTube channel also finds several recent videos focused on such narrow topics as getting volunteers to come to Florida (which has a wacky "Mad Men" vibe to it), or extolling singer James Taylor's involvement in North Carolina, or promoting the Spanish band Mana's endorsement of Obama. Like the Obama email strategy that I wrote about earlier this week, on YouTube and on the ground, they're clearly trying to leave no stone unturned, no target untapped.

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