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In 2008, people watched a lot of then-Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign videos on YouTube - according to the campaign, roughly a billion minutes' worth. That's right. People spent a total of almost 2,000 years watching campaign videos, and that's just for the Obama campaign.
This year, Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney are on the way to topping that number. Both campaigns are constantly releasing new Web videos. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the logic behind what has become a strategy of inundation.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Lee Rainie remembers when the rule for successful online videos was repetition. Rainie directs the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.
LEE RAINIE: The old, conventional wisdom was that you had to hammer home the same message consistently, a lot of times, before it would actually - sort of penetrate the consciousness, and begin to shape the opinion of voters.
SHAPIRO: Now, those days seem quaint. Today, it's all about constant stimulation - everywhere, all the time.
RAINIE: People's attention is so fragmented, their sources of information are so fragmented, that consistency doesn't necessarily have the same power that it might have had in days gone by.
SHAPIRO: Campaigns can easily churn out a new Web video every day - and they often do. But that doesn't guarantee that they have an audience. Colin Delany is founder and editor of the website Epolitics.com.
COLIN DELANEY: A lot of these videos only have a few thousand views on YouTube. So they're not really - often, they're not getting seen by a mass audience.
SHAPIRO: The viewership can be small, but it includes people with big megaphones - like Whoopi Goldberg, on "The View."
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WHOOPIE GOLDBERG: A controversial new campaign ad for President Obama strongly implies that Mitt Romney wouldn't have made the call that led to the major victory in the war on terror.
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FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You hire the president to make the calls when no one else can do it.
SHAPIRO: The Obama folks never bought TV time for this video, but millions of people saw it anyway because it landed in their inbox, or on their Facebook page. Brian Jones advises the Romney campaign.
BRIAN JONES: It's a way to drive a message. You're not actually paying for anything other than the production value of the Web ad. And they're usually pretty easy to produce, and you can do it pretty quickly.
SHAPIRO: So if Romney talks about Latino voters one day, there's a Web ad bolstering that message. And if, the next day, President Obama slips up and says the private sector is doing fine, well...
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I have to work part time in order to make ends meet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sometimes, I feel like I'm a failure.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The private sector is doing fine...the private sector is doing fine....
SHAPIRO: With every new video, the campaigns learn more about what works, and what doesn't. Benjamin Edelman, of Harvard Business School, says Google has mastered this approach with its advertisers. The search engine advises companies to try as many variations on an ad as they can think of. So one version might advertise Boston Red Sox tickets. Another might say: Buy tickets to a Red Sox game.
BENJAMIN EDELMAN: It's not unusual for an advertiser to have hundreds, or even thousands, of different ads. Just churn them out even in - variety of variations, where you try every different substitution of this word and that word, and see what consumers seem to respond to.
SHAPIRO: The same is true in Web videos. You might not think it makes any difference whether a candidate wears a white shirt or a plaid shirt. But Edelman says it does.
EDELMAN: Now, you add something very different - like a different script, a different look on the face, different body language - and the responses truly can differ by just - awful lot.
SHAPIRO: Today, instead of paying a consultant tens of thousands of dollars to opine on what works and hoping for the best, campaigns can afford to try a range of things and see what sticks. Brian Jones, of the Romney campaign, says his team is always learning and refining based on what spurs donations, volunteers and ultimately, votes.
JONES: We are able to monitor what people are looking at, what they're responding to from a fundraising perspective. And it's important for the campaign to, obviously, keep a close eye on that, and look to see what trends are kind of developing from a Web ad perspective.
SHAPIRO: Then, the things that work may find their way into candidate speeches, or TV ads with real money behind them.
Low production costs also mean the campaign can try off-kilter things they might not bother with otherwise. But there are risks to experimentation. Teddy Goff is the Obama 2012 digital director. The campaign would not grant an interview with him, but he recently gave this talk at Social Media Week.
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TEDDY GOFF: In 2008, if we had been tinny or political, or not local enough or not timely enough, or if we just didn't strike the right emotional chords, that would have been bad, and people might have disengaged. You know, in this election, they cannot only disengage, they can disengage and then tweet about how disengaged they are.
SHAPIRO: Every campaign wants a video that goes viral. But the last thing they want is a clip that goes viral for the wrong reasons.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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