Barack Obama spent nearly $800 million pursuing the White
House in 2008. Over half of that was media spending:
Television, direct mail, rallies, and internet infrastructure, including a virtual Second Life headquarters.
Compared to his expansive broadcast media strategy, Obama's foray into virtual worlds hardly ranks.
Yet the campaign's tiny investment in a corner of the Metaverse will make a big difference in 2012, when politicians begin to integrate virtual worlds into official campaign strategy.
A Question of Virtual Value
Obama’s Second Life hub drew over 11,000 worldwide visits an hour at its peak, but articles lauding the campaign for their Metaverse literacy fail to mention how short that peak truly was. Obama gained significant foot traffic or several days following the Democratic National Convention, with declining bumps during and after each presidential debate.
The entire project cost less than $1,800 to develop and certainly benefited from news media attention, but how many voters did the virtual campaign headquarters actually persuade? Second Life receives a majority of its traffic from outside the United States, meaning the majority of visitors to Obama's virtual office were not voters.
However, even if Second Life advertising receives only the tepid
response rates of traditional direct mail (where 2-3% of recipients returning
an ‘interest card’ constitutes a blowout day), the Obama campaign still only
spent, on average, a penny per visitor. These visitors, though, likely knew of Obama already. They weren't learning anything new.
As a tool for augmenting a large campaign, virtual worlds have promise. As a device for building ground-up support for a relatively unknown candidate? Not quite.
The Future of Virtual Campaigning
Is it likely we’ll see an avatar running for the White
House in 2012? No, not very likely. However, I believe it is entirely likely
that smart campaign staffers will piggyback on cost-cutting technology to
increase the spread of their candidate’s message.
Barack Obama may limit his personal role in virtual worlds,
but the tectonic shift in campaign planning for 2012 will be that campaigns are
planning for Second Life instead of
producing last-minute backdrops for a candidate’s “photo-op.”
detail, like prepping a model volcano with baking soda prior to the science
fair, will lay the groundwork for much wider adoption of the Metaverse – not just Second Life – as a mean of amplifying messages. Though Second Life users may not decide the outcome of an election any time soon, they will have no shortage of opportunity to speak their mind in an officially-backed virtual office.