Facebook co-brands with President Obama

“God, we’ve never done this. I don’t know where to stand.”

Those were the words of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as she kicked off a town hall Facebook hosted for President Barack Obama today. The town hall, streamed live and followed avidly on Twitter, was a marketing coup for both Facebook and the president – maybe the pinnacle of co-branding.

For about an hour, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fielded questions for the president from employees at Facebook’s headquarters and from those of us watching from the digital world. As a political forum, the town hall was fairly bland. But I think it was a successful marketing event for these reasons:

1. Facebook elevated its stature from social media leader to national influencer.

And Zuckerberg knew it.

“I’m kind of nervous,” he admitted. “We have the president of the United States here.”

In addition to moderating questions, Zuckerberg interjected his own views on occasion, voicing support for Obama’s stance on educational reform. For his part, Obama acknowledged Facebook’s influence more than once when he cited the times he’s met with Zuckerberg and Sandberg to compare notes on issues of the day.

2. Facebook gave Obama an audience with the affluent high-tech industry, and those of us living in Facebook’s orbit – nothing to sneeze at, considering Facebook’s reach with 500 million people.

And Obama took advantage of the moment, playing to the audience by advocating issues such as energy, immigration, and healthcare reform.

“We want more Andy Groves in the United States,” he said at one point. “We don’t want the next Intel launched in China.”

Jennifer Preston of the New York Times went so far as to ask on Twitter, “Will other presidential candidates seeking election in 2012 get same opportunity w/Facebook livestream townhall? Is this in-kind donation?”

It was the kind of forward-thinking communications approach that helped Obama get elected president.

3. The format was low risk.

Facebook is like a self-autonomous country. What does Facebook have to lose by getting involved in a town hall with the president? It’s not like Facebook followers are going to delete their accounts if they dislike Obama.

What if you are not Facebook, though? Would hosting a major political in a town hall be good for your brand? Certainly it would if you have an agenda to promote or you seek to elevate your stature. If you played host to a town hall as carefully choreographed as this one was, the risk would not be as high as you might think.

Today’s event was not so much about Zuckerberg and Obama cozying up to each other but rather Facebook borrowing brand equity from the office of the president and the president acting as the gracious guest to a country of 500 million.

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