State of the Union Address in the US: When the Web Makes Better TV than TV Itself

This year, Barack Obama broke with tradition regarding the preparation of his annual State of the Union address, which the New York Times qualifies as a classic old-media event. After having lifted the embargo on the address’ content by making it available to the entire planet through Medium more than one hour before the scheduled live TV broadcast, he offered much more to internet users and took full advantage of online distribution possibilities.

Medium’s team identified four types of audiences for this important political event, i.e., the TV Watcher, the Two Screens (television + computer/mobile/tablet), the Livestreamer (enhanced online experience only) and the Social Consumer—thought to follow the event mainly via social networks.

Livestreamers are without a doubt those who lived the most innovative experience. Whereas through television, the American public was served a highly conventional version of the political address, the video live-streamed directly on YouTube was complemented by the addition of 127 graphics, statistics and infographics supporting President Obama’s discourse. Calls to share the enhanced online experience were launched everywhere thanks namely to the quote images created during the address. 

A total of 1,575,475 tweets and retweets using the official #SOTU hashtag were published (2.6 million if all social conversations including those without the hashtag are taken into account). That’s up by 25% compared to 2014. Moreover, the White House’s Twitter account registered ten times more followers than during the course of a normal day. Finally, half of the citizens who watched the enhanced version of the address did so from a mobile device. The TV content online and mobile experiences were augmented to inform the average American of ‘what’s in it for him’ during Obama’s speech. It’s a resolutely modern approach designed to reach younger audiences.

Whereas 3.7 million people sat down in front of the TV to watch the address compared to 1.2 million who got online to view the enhanced version, a clear trend has been taking form with respect to SOTU viewing: television audiences are decreasing whereas live-streaming watching on the Web and social network sharing are skyrocketing. One could also think that this is an offensive launched by the president’s team to disseminate the address throughout the world and give an international scope to the United States’ political agenda.

#YouTubeAsksObama

Also in the wake of the State of the Union address, Barack Obama’s communications team—very aware of the web’s star system—invited three popular YouTubers to conduct exclusive interviews with the president at the White House. Titled #YouTubeAsksObama, the initiative gave a younger public the opportunity to question the American president on issues that concern them through their favourite vlogger.

Up to recently, the public relations marathon surrounding the State of the Union address consisted of inviting selected journalists to the White House and sending the president out on a talkshow tour to meet with different audiences. In 2015, the web is a must for any communication strategy if the goal is to convey the message effectively to younger electors.

“To not have an aggressive social media strategy in 2015 would be the equivalent of not having an aggressive TV strategy in the 1950s.” – Dan Pfeiffer, President Obama’s senior adviser

By understanding how to efficiently use the new communication channels, politicians will successfully win over the hearts of a new generation of electors. In 2015, any distribution strategy must systematically include an online pane. No longer is the web a secondary window or an afterthought. In this regard, the most highly talented digital strategists such as those working for Barack Obama are paving the way.

In the case of the 2015 State of the Union address, one could argue that the web made better TV than TV itself.

This post was inspired by a conference given by Catalina Briceno and Gabrielle Madé at a Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques members breakfast. 

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