Eight years ago, Facebook had fewer than 100 million active users, Twitter was known more for its “Failwhale” than politics and cord-cutting wasn't really a thing. Fast-forward to 2016, where shows on Amazon have won Golden Globes, 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, and the White House just announced it has joined a messaging service millennials love called Snapchat.
As the administration preps for U.S. President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday, the staff is working to not only craft the perfect send-off but also to guarantee that as many people as possible hear the message. In the era of smartphone apps and binge-watching, that means finding more ways to gain screen time beyond the takeover of television networks. ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News and CNN will all air the address, but the median age of their viewers is in the high 50s, low 60s.
Therefore, to reach the younger audience, the president must go elsewhere. “There’s no question that people are looking beyond the traditional,” said Charles Buchwalter, CEO and president of Symphony Advanced Media, a company focused on video measurement and insights. “The audience for watching the State of the Union has potentially been undercounted.”
For Tuesday’s address at 9 p.m. EST, people will be able to watch for the first time on Amazon Video. Those without a TV set can go to wh.gov/sotu or YouTube. Throughout the day, the White House will look to garner excitement with posts across the social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Snapchat.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) January 12, 2016
The digital strategy helps the government find the “audiences that are difficult to reach regardless of the context,” said Nathaniel Lubin, the former digital director at the White House. Only about 32 million people watched the State of the Union address last year, while over 300 million live in the U.S..
For a final address, the effort is also about permanence.
These initiatives are “meeting people where they are,” wrote White House Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman on Sunday in a post that etched out the online and social strategy. “We believe that by ‘broadcasting’ the State of the Union across social media and streaming video platforms we are helping American citizens connect to the government that serves them,” Goldman wrote on Medium.
Obama’s actions affect not only how Americans will hear from the government this week, but set an example for the person who takes his place. “The precedent [on digital] is pretty firmly established,” said Liba Rubenstein, the director of public policy at Tumblr, highlighting the several campaigns Obama has done on the millennial-focused, gif-sharing network.
Tapping the Networks
Obama took a leap when he decided to invest in online strategies in an effort to secure the Democratic nomination in 2008. Now, he has been called the "social media president” and continues to find more channels to empower voters and his administration.
Recently, the Office of Digital Strategy approached Genius, a technology company based in New York and formerly called Rap Genius, to collaborate on ways to incorporate the annotation tool into the administration’s initiatives. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton tapped the company last year to live-annotate her campaign kickoff speech in New York.
The two teams chose to publish all of Obama’s State of the Union addresses and allow for annotation with Genius. Now, when reading the speech, viewers can see additional information from speechwriters and other key players like Vice President Joe Biden.
“Genius isn’t coming from any particular political perspective. Our vision is to provide anyone who has a stake in the political process a way to provide knowledge and context to statements. I think there’s an increasing need for that,” said Rachel Blatt, director of partnerships for Genius.
Pages on Genius experience a spike in traffic the day after the live event, Blatt said, which means that on Wednesday people may go to the State of the Union 2016 page to reflect more on what was said the night before — not unlike a college student in a political science class.
Obama has revealed that his final speech will not be a “laundry list” of his plans for 2016. Instead, he said he plans to discuss the issues that will shape the administrations of future presidents and the lives of younger generations.
With that message, it is more important than ever that he reaches the widest audience and the millennials who are more likely to open Snapchat than to turn on the television. “I asked my students, ‘What do you think about this Brian Williams controversy?’ and they say, ‘Who?’ They are getting their news off Twitter, off Facebook,” said Dr. Janet Johnson, who teaches in the emerging media and communication department at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The digital networks benefit from such attention as well. For the 2015 State of the Union, 18 videos the White House published directly on Facebook reached 26 million people, according to Facebook. An estimated 31.7 million people watched the address on television last year, according to Nielsen ratings.
— Gena Wolfson (@gwolfson) January 11, 2016
Obama’s viewership for the State of the Union has been on the decline, but these numbers may not solely be the fault of his administration or leadership. “The media is just more fragmented,” Lubin said. “You can emphasize partnerships, use digital channels to break news.”
Last year, Obama made an unprecedented move by publishing the full transcript of the State of the Union address on the blogging site Medium prior to its airing on TV and providing it to reporters. No matter whether an American watches the full event Tuesday, the president clearly wants the message to be understood.
That is perhaps why the White House chose to launch a Snapchat account on Monday despite the service being almost five years old and 2016 presidential contenders already frequently using the app for campaigning. “It’s a pretty big difference to use social for government versus campaigning. It’s really easy to see the value when you’re trying to get people to vote for you in the same way that advertisers are trying to get you to watch,” said Rubenstein of Tumblr.
Obama is quite familiar with such an aggressive digital strategy. But this time around Obama is campaigning for his legacy and the future of his party.
As the social media president wraps up his term, he is snapping videos to Snapchat and selecting the best filters for his Instagram posts — all in an effort to make history while inspiring change.