You can’t run for dogcatcher these days without a YouTube campaign.  And whether they are Democrats or Republicans, candidates running for office in 2012 can learn some video marketing lessons from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

When interim San Francisco mayor Lee announced he was bidding in earnest for the full-term spot, his opponents had already been campaigning for a solid year. Although a late entrant to the race, Lee claimed victory in a field of 16 candidates on Nov. 8, 2011.

What helped Lee win last year’s San Francisco mayoral election? A music video parody involving celebrity cameos and a pair of signature Hammer parachute pants.

Ron Conway, a tech mogul who admired Lee’s ability to foster tech-industry jobs for the San Francisco Bay Area, started San Franciscans for Jobs and Good Government, an independent expenditure group to elect Lee. About two weeks before election day, San Franciscans for Jobs and Good Government released a video entitled “Ed Lee is 2 Legit 2 Quit.”

This political remake of MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit” music video features cameos from a gamut of tech, sports and local personalities, including Giants pitcher Brian Wilson, NFL Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott, of the Black Eyed Peas, 49ers owner Jed York, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Marissa Mayer of Google, Hunter Walk of YouTube, and Hammer himself.

Conway worked with political consultants Aaron McLear and Josh Ginsberg of The Ginsberg McLear Group and Brian Brokaw of Brian Brokaw Consulting to develop a new media strategy that incorporated YouTube. To create the video, they reached out to Portal A Interactive and Ashkon – the same creative studio and performer who teamed up for the 2010 YouTube viral video hit “Don’t Stop Believing” for the San Francisco Giants Championship Series.

Making a play off of the infamous “Fear the Beard” slogan of the Giants’ Wilson, Portal A put celebrities in orange T-shirts with “Fear the Mustache” emblazoned on them. The ensemble danced over the creative lyrics, held up pictures of mayor Ed Lee, and gave their verbal endorsements for Lee. Although the video is highly entertaining, it constantly reinforces a key message: “Ed Lee Gets It Done.”

National press pick-up helped the video gain additional awareness for Lee. The Atlantic called it “The Best Campaign Video of This Year” and ABC News said “big names are giving voters a reason to think that Mayor Ed Lee is, well ‘Too Legit to Quit.’” The Young Turks commented, “That video alone makes me want to vote for him.” The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC covered the video on election night.

These are just a few examples among many in a flurry of national coverage of the local San Francisco election, at a time when the 2012 Presidential campaign was already in full swing.

In a cohesive social media push, tweets by Brian Wilson and Hammer announced the video to the public, and the link spread like wildfire well beyond San Francisco.

“The video is an innovative campaign tactic that applies our knowledge and relationships in the tech world to politics,” wrote Conway in a Huffington Post article entitled, “The Making of the Ed Lee “2 Legit 2 Quit” Video,” which ran the day the video was released on YouTube. “Campaigns always announce endorsements but this is a completely new way to do it. This is an innovative and inexpensive way to cut through the clutter of tired old negative TV ads,” he explained.

Targeting voters in San Francisco, the video ran as a TrueView in-stream ad that let viewers choose to watch the video ad or skip it if they were not interested. Over the week the video ran as an ad, tens of thousands of YouTube visitors opted to watch the video in its entirety. The campaign also used TrueView in-search and in-display ads to highlight the video at the top of YouTube search results pages and in suggested videos, and Google AdWords to drive search traffic to YouTube.

Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) in Washington, D.C. was also involved. According to Mark Skidmore, partner at BPI, having a paid media program, combined with great content, helped the video become a smash hit.

“The primary campaign goal was to drive voter views, and we succeeded in engaging with millions of Californians – with nearly half of views resulting from advertising,” says Skidmore. “YouTube’s targeting capabilities were a big factor, because we were able to reach influential, voting-age adults.”

BPI also promoted the video through targeted Facebook advertising that used images of Ed Lee, Brian Wilson and MC Hammer to generate views across social media platforms. This tactic also proved successful.

“Reaching 2 million eyeballs through traditional means would cost upwards of $200,000, making YouTube enormously inexpensive by comparison,” says McLear.

“The earned media was remarkable. We have never seen such a strong reaction from press for any previous campaign. We learned that YouTube is not only a platform for social media, but also for driving uptake in traditional media too,” adds Ginsberg.

The team credits its success to a four-way collaboration

  1. Conway’s outreach and broad array of contacts
  2. Brokaw and The Ginsberg McLear Group’s political expertise and ability to work strategically with social media and press
  3. Portal A Interactive’s creative expertise and knowledge of the YouTube platform
  4. BPI’s ability to activate a successful online media campaign.

Zach Blume, a partner at Portal A, also credits one other player.

“YouTube could not have been any more integral to our success,” he says.