Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

Barack Obama, Healthcare.gov’s Marketer-in-Chief

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US President Barack Obama went on Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.

  • (To be more precise, they came to him. It was filmed in the White House.) [link]
  • Some pundits considered this to be inappropriate, that it would “diminish the Presidency”. [link]

But the ‘gamble’ paid off, increasing hHealthcare.gov traffic by 40%:

According to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett:

“The goal is to help reach that young audience. And Zach and the guys at Funny or Die, they have huge followings. Every young person I know watches their videos on YouTube. And the fact that the website traffic has gone up is really an indication that it’s working.”

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Obama’s thoughts: “Lincoln loved telling bawdy jokes.”

“First of all, if you read back on Lincoln, he loved telling the occasional bawdy joke, and he went out among regular folks,” Obama said on ESPN Radio’s ‘The Herd with Colin Cowherd.’

“One of the hardest things about being president is being in a bubble that is artificial. Unless you make a conscious effort, you start to sound like some Washington stiff,” Obama added.

“So you got to consciously try to get out of that, if you want to remind yourself of the wonderful people you are supposed to be serving with a sense of humor and aren’t thinking every day of position papers.”

Implications – Obama’s unorthodox approach is part of a long history of Presidents adapting to new media practices, and will be judged well by because it paid off.

It’s clear to me that posterity will judge Obama and his team well for their unorthodox approach.

By investing just a few minutes of his time, Obama managed to successfully get millions of young people to go to healthcare.gov. Its success sets a precedent with regards to the way a President engages the people.

But this isn’t new at all. Presidents have always had to adapt to changing circumstances. After all, the Presidency predated many things we take for granted today, such as radio and television. The idea of a President doing a TV interview strikes us as ordinary, but it was once novel.

Takeaway for marketers:

1: Don’t let fear of criticism cripple you into inaction.

Anything significant will receive bad press.

When Coke came up with a multicultural ad at the 2014 Super Bowl, they received quite a bit of negative responses on social media- which in turn got a lot of press. If Coke were less confident about their branding, and if they were worried about receiving any negative press at all, they would have stuck with something “safe”- which is a codeword for boring. Instead, they stuck to their well-researched guns and positioned themselves as a brand with a noble vision that’s “ahead of the curve”.

A strong stance is the foundation of a powerful brand.

The same applies to Starbucks’ open support for gay marriage. It may have alienated some Starbucks customers in the short term, but in the long run it strengthens Starbucks’ brand. A year ago, many were wondering if such a strong stance would hurt Starbucks’ bottom line. Today, clearly, the brand is still thriving.

To the untrained eye, these look like risky short-term gambles.

But these aren’t random choices, they’re carefully calculated moves that are made to re-establish a brand’s fundamental purpose and vision.

As Simon Sinek said, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. We identify with brands that we believe share our beliefs. Obama’s appearance on a comedy skit might seem trivial, but it will be judged well on hindsight because it was a representation of his commitment to providing affordable healthcare for all Americans.

2: Know your desired goal. Who do you want to affect, and how?

Obama’s intent was clear: He wants to get more young people to signup for health insurance. That single-minded focus is what kept his “low brow” appearance (in my opinion) from being frivolous.

He achieved that intent beautifully, by identifying where young people hang out, what they pay attention to, and then entering that space tactfully, constructively. He understood (or was taught by his team) that simply preaching at people to signup wouldn’t have been as effective.

3: Skate to where the puck is going.

Times are always changing.

10 years ago, it would’ve seemed pretty crazy to imagine that the President of the United States would be personally involved in making funny videos on the Internet.

But 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have expected that the vast majority of the American public would be spending time online, either.

The novel becomes the mundane.

Radio and Television were considered playthings with no commercial value before they became multi-billion dollar industries, with corporations and politicians scrambling to be heard. Talk shows and popular online content producers are just the natural progression of that. A  decade from now or sooner, the idea of engaging people by reaching them through their preferred medium will seem like the painfully obvious thing to do, not an inherently risky proposition.

Considering all of this, it becomes clear that things like social media and FunnyOrDie are here to stay, and they’re only going to increase in power and influence (at least, until something else comes along to disrupt it).

Marketers can’t afford to ignore this.

This might seem scary and complicated, but really, all the marketer needs to do is focus on her target market. Once you have a deep understanding of who your customers are and what they care about, everything else is ‘just’ legwork.

4: Put a face on it. People care about people.

I really liked what a commenter on Huffington Post said:

“The President is taking personal responsibility for encouraging young people in particular to engage with the ACA exchanges and help themselves to healthcare. The ACA is his signature piece of legislation so it’s appropriate that he be the one to front it.”

Visibility is something to be leveraged.

The President doesn’t nearly have as much power as we might think he does, just as the CEO of any large company isn’t a miracle worker. The one thing both the President and a CEO have in common, though, is that they’re highly visible. People have always been interested in high-profile individuals. So anytime a President or CEO does something unusual, people pay attention.

“Unusual”, of course, is insufficient. Creativity isn’t just about doing something different, it’s about doing something different that works. That’s the hard part, That’s what requires a deep knowledge and understanding of your craft and your audience. Steve Jobs was an absolute master at this. Elon Musk is doing it pretty well, as is Mark Zuckerberg.

Some critics may say that these individuals rely upon a cult of personality. But I think they’ve got it squarely the other way around. If it were really so easy to build a cult of personality, we’d all have one. “Cults” or followings form around leaders who communicate vision and purpose.

Also: Obama’s appearance on Two Ferns wasn’t just great marketing for Healthcare.gov, it was great marketing for Funny Or Die.

This was explored in a Fast Company article ‘How Funny Or Die Landed The President‘. A quick summary:

  • Focus on the essential source of value. “The business supports the creative, not the other way around.” Funny or Die is good at what they do, which is the most fundamental, thing.
  • Relationships take time. First meaningful interaction with the White House was way back in 2011, when White House staff was exploring ways to reach young people. I think this shows remarkable foresight on the White House’s part.
  • Word-of-mouth is king. Obama wasn’t familiar with the series, but he knew it would work when his daughter Malia’s eyes lit up at the table. If she hadn’t heard of it, perhaps Obama might not have gone through with it. That’s the power of word-of-mouth.
  • Authenticity is crucial. “It’s a hard-to-reach audience, and if you don’t reach them authentically, then it can be very damaging. If the video hadn’t worked, the danger existed that other high-profile “gets” wouldn’t want to participate in future projects.”

I think the takeaway there is:

If you build something really entertaining, something that creates real value, then you will earn a following. Once you earn a following, you find yourself in a position that you weren’t before- one where you can help others.

In Funny Or Die’s case, they got to help the President of the United States. But that’s just an extreme example. Anybody who builds anything of value will find herself in a position to help others in a way that’s mutually beneficial. And that becomes a virtuous loop.

I think that’s how you do marketing in a way that yields serious returns.

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Read Next: 8 Examples Of Creating Unexpected Utility In Marketing To Get More Word-Of-Mouth

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Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's Blog Editor. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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