Can Rudd cash in on the Obama effect?

Rachel MulhollandCan Kevin Rudd’s appointment of Obama’s digital team have an actual impact on the forthcoming election? In a piece that first appeared in EncoreRachel Mulholland looks at the likelihood.

Rudd’s decision to hire Obama’s digital SWAT team has upped the social media stakes in the forthcoming election. But will this have a tangible impact on the polls? Obama’s social media big guns will likely give Rudd an edge with young Australians; something he’s worked hard to build since before the ‘07 election.  

While social media is not just the domain of youth in Australia, 18-to-34 year olds dominate the most active sites and, as the first to adopt each platform, have set the rules of social behaviour. Thus, ‘social cred’ gained through social media wins will have more influence on the political decision making of younger Australians. Social media is like the tabloid press in that it thrives on high emotion. Rudd’s newly appointed digital gurus, keenly aware of this fact, will play to powerful emotions like mirth and indignation to achieve online “virality” (the definition of social cred). This, coupled with real-time marketing – the latest infatuation of businesses around the world – will likely be central to Labor’s social media strategy.

We can expect to see an increase in real-time combative campaigning, like YouTube, Instagram, Vine videos and blogs that ridicule or attack the opposition by latching on to any gaffes. Insights from the Obama campaign will be invaluable here.

Personal branding, engagement and mobilisation

Just like the Australian business community, Rudd has increasingly used social media to show he is just an “ordinary” guy and to build his image as the dorky, yet endearing fatherly figure. Whether cool or on the level of a daggy dad joke, Rudd’s recent shaving cut selfie showed an acute understanding of the power of social media for creating a personal brand.

Kevin Rudd shaving selfie

Kevin takes a selfie

But beyond providing a window into Rudd’s personal life, success will depend on Labor’s ability to integrate the web into everything they do and genuinely make politics more accessible by reaching out and engaging with people. Obama excelled at this during the 2012 election by answering unique interests and addressing specific needs of voters and campaign supporters; something that can be put down to his data-driven approach. Rudd’s reputation for returning the follow on Twitter, particularly of his younger fans, shows engagement is already a focus. He is also generating online conversations and fostering advocacy, with around 14,000 people talking about him on Facebook, compared to only 871 talking about Abbott. Nevertheless, Rudd’s digital team lacks the data crunchers and lead time Obama enjoyed.

As with the 2012 Obama campaign, mobilisation of supporters wanting to play an integral role in the campaign’s success will also be a crucial element in Rudd’s online strategy. The decision to announce the election date via social media and email is a case in point – followers and supporters were made to feel like insiders “in the know” before the official announcement to the masses. A sense of personal engagement with a campaign drives both energy and momentum: a reversal of the sense of disempowerment many tend to complain about.

The “Obama Effect”

Obama effectively wrote the social media playbook for politicians during his 2008 campaign and is said to have won the 2012 election because of social media. His team was expert at adapting social and cultural trends, giving Obama the edge in terms of ‘coolness’.

By hiring Obama’s social media gurus, Rudd is aligning himself with this image of a “daggy-cool”, forward-thinking, innovative politician.

It positions him as politically savvy and on top of industry, social and cultural trends. This will affect attitudes beyond Australia’s youth market.

It will also help to ‘globalise’ the election. Obama received a lot of social media support from the global community during the 2012 election which would have impacted opinions on the home front. Beyond international supporters, it attracts those interested in the impact of social media on politics. Let’s face it, that’s the business community in most Western markets.

A quick search for “Obama and social media” or “Kevin Rudd” on Google UK, Italy, Germany, Ireland and China returns stories about Rudd’s new digital hires. Clearly, in an increasingly globalised political, social and cultural landscape, social media has the ability to play a pivotal role in positioning Rudd as a leader on the global stage.

A social boxing match

So how do our two contestants compare?

Currently, the weedy Rudd is streets ahead of the boxing blue Abbott in the social media sphere.

In the July before the 2007 election, Rudd had more than 1,600 Facebook likes, a number that was growing at a rate of around 200 per day. Now Rudd has more than 93,300 Facebook followers compared to Abbott’s 39,300.

This time around, Twitter, Instagram and other social channels are also in play. Rudd has been growing his Twitter fan base since November 2008, with in excess of 1,300,000 followers, more than eight times Abbott’s 148,765 despite a social media push from the Liberals since the 2010 election.

It’s not all about numbers – I’d estimate around 40 per cent of followers would be fake accounts anyway. However, it’s interesting to note that as of election night in 2012, Obama had around 32m Facebook likes, 21m Twitter followers and 259,685 YouTube views, whereas Mitt Romney had 12m Facebook likes, 1.7m Twitter followers and only 29,172 YouTube views.

Nevertheless, Rudd and the Labor Party still have a long way to go on social media. Their approach to date has been ad hoc, with no defining ideas or synchronisation of messages across pages and channels.

The same goes for the Liberal Party. Abbott is struggling to find his voice on social media, with comments reading more like excerpts from press releases than genuine attempts to engage or join the conversations of constituents.

The decider?

Since Obama’s 2012 campaign, social media in politics has taken off globally. And it’s not just the Western world either; it is expected to play a key role in the upcoming electoral battles in both India and Zimbabwe.

But social media also ushers in a new era of transparency for politicians and politics generally. If there’s no substance behind the spin, it will do more damage than good in the modern-day town square.

Providing Rudd’s new team works to this ‘truth’ and can drive enough momentum over the coming weeks, social media could be a critical decisive element that sets a precedent for political campaigning in Australia.

Rachel Mulholland is a marketing executive with the Clemenger Group.

Encore Issue 26This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit for a preview of the app or click below to download.


  1. stephen
    9 Aug 13
    12:18 pm

  2. One fundamental difference though, as outlined by Obama’s digital team themselves, is that the majority of their effort went into getting people to actually vote. With compulsory voting in Australia, the objectives are quite different

  3. Mark M
    9 Aug 13
    3:17 pm

  4. Great article rach.!!

  5. Bruce
    9 Aug 13
    4:15 pm

  6. See: how much spin and PR can we put on this guy to cover-up what a total disaster he is….

  7. Jamie
    10 Aug 13
    7:31 pm

  8. I don’t blame him for trying to up the social media campaign, considering that Murdoch has upped the Traditional media campaign.

    This comes not longer after Murdoch flies in and appoints “Col Pot” to the editorial team to dig as much dirt as he can on Rudd..

    Total disaster Bruce? I don’t want to vote for either of them (its a shame Australia has compulsory voting) – and I’ve traditionally voted Liberal – but the only disaster in Australian politics over the last 5 years has been Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader.

    He has single handedly taken politics in the country to a new low and destroyed the viability of the Liberal party as an economic thought-leader.

    It’ll be interesting to see how Labor use this new Digital talent – they’ll need it with the onslaught they have been, and will continue to get from the Murdoch press.

  9. Richard Moss
    12 Aug 13
    3:37 pm

  10. Rachel Mulholland has written a very nice article here.

    Prime Minister Rudd needs all the boost he can muster, he is a very unpopular man with an even more unpopular party. He is playing every smarmy, smiling, nice guy trick he can bring to the fight, because he has very little to recommend him as a charismatic leader.

    The use of the Obama team and effect, is a mark of Rudd’s determination to be the top man, he’s kissing babies, promising paradise and patting people on the head right now because he needs votes, if he gets enough of them, he will no longer need you to vote for him, then it will be our time to pay; paying will not be a pleasant experience, but Rudd won’t care two hoots about that.

  11. JJ
    12 Aug 13
    5:18 pm

  12. Great article, but is the Obama digital team really here?

  13. Tragic
    13 Aug 13
    12:45 pm

  14. Apart from the data and the voter registrations et al. The Obama campaign focussed on creating content worth spreading. They made memes, and they had the huge win with the Romney 47% of the country in on welfare moment.

    Rudd has yet to say anything worth spreading, Abbott is scared to say anything in case it ends up ion social media and then made a gaff that was funny but won’t matter.

    Until both parties focus on being clear about their offering we’ll have nothing to share and the real impact will be minimal because ail a kinda 50/50 split they are either talking to the converted or to people who will never convert.

    Currently we have both parties claiming – we’re for jobs and families.