The biggest story of the 2008 cycle to date is the potentially transformative role of on-line media in presidential campaigns. Every campaign is going on-line in a big way — from candidate announcements to YouTube and MySpace zones, to social networking. But might it be that the on-line medium campaign managers yearn to embrace might instead destroy the traditional model of how campaign messaging works?
Campaigns, by nature, are vertically integrated message creation and distribution machines. Themes are developed by a tight, preferably non-hierarchical, cadre of political confidantes for broadcast by the candidate, in paid and unpaid national and local media, and surrogates. The internet, by its nature, works the opposite way. Themes are developed by a broad-base of loosely-affiliated agents, achieving “voice” through a disparate maze of technological services (like RSS) and platforms (like YouTube). Campaigns are genetically engineered to control. The internet and the blogosphere are genetically engineered to undermine authority and decentralize creativity.
Conventional wisdom is that campaigns can bridge this divide either by controlling the forums where on-line discussion occurs, or rebutting on-line attacks with overwhelming volumes of audio and video content. So, how’s it working?
Three examples hint at the answer. First, the now-infamous anti-Hillary mash-up of Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad illustrates how quickly independent agents can change the debate in ways campaigns can hardly anticipate. Barack Obama, the ad’s beneficiary, disingenuously claimed his campaign lacked the expertise to have created the ad. Of course his campaign – like all of the others – has the capability. It is not a question of skill. It is a question of will: would any of the campaigns have the gumption to produce and take credit for any on-line ad as satirical and searing as the anti-Hillary mash-up?
Second, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported this week that a Seattle-based developer admitted hacking John McCain’s website in protest of the campaign’s un-credited use of open source software the developer previously created. In a digital world, the playing field is level between insurgents and content publishers (i.e. campaigns), and guess what, the insurgents always care more.
Third, a recent discussion on the Obama campaign’s website feedback forum involved a disgruntled campaign supporter who invited his friends, through the website, to a pro-Obama party in the Midwest. The supporter was inundated with e-mails from other website registrants as far away as Atlanta asking to attend. The supporter thought he was talking only to his friends, only to find he had revealed himself to a much wider universe. The campaign’s website moderator scrambled in response, suggesting the website would add an option to make announcements “private”. The lesson here is that campaigns should not recreate tools or services on branded sites already provided, and experience-tested, by commercial vendors. Campaign sites should offer supporters tools that are tried and true, rather than trying to create something proprietary on the fly.
So if conventional wisdom about how campaigns should engage on-line may not be right, how should the campaigns do it?
First, campaigns should celebrate what is unique about on-line distribution – the ability to deliver more relevant, more comprehensive, more compelling information to voters faster and cheaper than any other medium. Yet, in an on-line world driven by Google, people can access whatever they want whenever they want it. They are, as one leading media executive has said, “aggregators of their own truth.” This leaves campaigns with a stark choice. They can be just one of many sources of information, hoping that their brand will make them a “must-see.” Or they can become information aggregators in their own right, delivering regular feeds of both positive and negative campaign coverage directly to voters, along with easy to understand nuggets explaining why the positive coverage is right and the negative coverage isn’t. This is not like the screaming e-mail spam the national political committees produce with depressing regularity. It is something much more subtle blending news and perspective. Call it “news you can use from the campaign you can trust.” The essence of a successful campaign on-line effort is that the campaign is seen as a reliable aggregator, credible and informative, not just as a propagandist.
Second, the Internet provides a unique opportunity to deliver highly targeted messages. Campaigns should know which issues are most important to each registrant in their own branded communities and those hosted by third-parties like Yahoo! Groups. As relevant events happen, the campaign can deliver messages explaining “what this news means to you” or “how the candidate feels about issue x” to those most interested or affected. And any targeting should also take into account geography. Both the 2008 primaries and the general election will be decided in a few states. Campaigns must reach activists in these states with messages that explain the candidate’s position in both national and local terms.
Third, campaigns should be agents of recognition, highlighting events, user-generated content or video, or techniques employed by supporters around the country in service of the candidate. Campaigns should run contests for would-be video journalists to submit coverage of candidate visits. Campaigns could select winners to travel with the candidate, produce their own “insider” documentaries, or for high school or college participants, to receive scholarships or tuition assistance. “American Idol” meets Alexandra Pelosi. Of course, there is no guarantee that resulting footage will be entirely flattering. But this risk is more than outweighed by the free press and resulting buzz. The opportunity to elevate “real people” into campaign activists is the essence of on-line marketing and affiliation.
On-line is a wondrous medium especially for political campaigns. Twenty years ago, it took staffers days of feverish work to do what can now be finished in minutes. Yet, success on-line is about much more than speed. What worked in broadcast models off-line (creating channels, overwhelming viewers with content) is unlikely to work as well on-line. The Internet offers candidates a singular means to build a deeper relationship with voters, something far more personal and responsive than we have had before, and dare we hope it, more honest, as well.
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