The presidential candidates may disagree about Iraq, health care and taxes, but their campaigns demonstrate a clear consensus that the rise of Web 2.0 tools offers the chance to engage interested citizens, one market niche, one voter, one message at a time.
By Esther Shein
Earlier this month, volunteers for Republican
presidential candidate Ron Paul, aided by an extraordinary
outpouring of grassroots Internet support, made U.S.
electoral history by raising more than $4.2 million in one
24-hour period. “The Web Takes Ron Paul for a
Ride,” noted The New York Times.
Four years ago, the likes of Howard Dean and John Kerry
looked for a lift online from website donors, e-mail updates,
high-profile blogs and political gatherings via Meetup.com.
We’re now watching campaign 2.0, where 20-plus presidential candidates may
disagree on Iraq, health care and taxes, but their actions
speak as one about the need to add Web 2.0 tools to their
communications, fund-raising and outreach strategies.
With less than two months to go before the primary season
begins with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, candidates are sprinting for donor
dollars, media coverage and votes. And they are targeting
online communities, social networking sites, YouTube channels,
audio clips, Flickr photo feeds, sponsored blogs,
self-contained content widgets for supporters’
websites and more to connect with all of those
constituencies. Democrats John Edwards and Hillary Clinton used website videos to
announced their candidacies.
Businesses can take a page from the candidates’ social
networking frenzy. Web 2.0 applications make it possible to
promote a corporate image while creating an opportunity to
become more accessible and responsive to customers through new
communications channels. But beware: There’s an
authenticity trap here. Experts say it’s difficult to
pursue so many new channels without diluting your message,
without seeming as if you’re trying to be everything to
The Ubiquitous Campaign 2.0
The candidates are everywhere you look if you spend time
online. Some examples:
On the hustings in online communities. On
eons.com, an online community for
retiring baby boomers, Hillary Clinton has been given
blogger and storyteller badges for posting frequently and
sharing her life story. On Democrat Barack Obama’s personal homepage
on BlackPlanet.com you can watch his recent
talk show appearances on the Tavis Smiley Show and
The Tonight Show to your heart’s content. His
page on the Latino community MiGente has a link to Obama TV en
Full YouTube ahead. All the major
candidates have their own YouTube channel (and MySpace and Facebook pages). In addition, a video
project called 10Questions presents voter questions to
the candidates, who then post their video answers. As of
Nov. 21, Republican Mike Huckabee had uploaded nine
responses addressing Internet neutrality, whether the United
States is a theocracy and whether marijuana should be legal.
(Obama was the only other candidate to post any
A Candidate Engages Voters
Republican Mike Huckabee Explains His Views On Net Neutrality.
Business card sharing. Republican Rudy
Giuliani has 247 connections on social networking site
LinkedIn. It’s not difficult to
conjure a game of “Six Degrees of Rudy” to see
if the former New York mayor just might be connected to
someone you know.
Second Life. Edwards has built a
“campaign central” on Second Life, the 3-D virtual world and
even received some virtual news coverage about its opening
on the Second Life News Network.
Video mash-ups. Taking a page from Madison
Avenue campaigns for candy bars and fast-food restaurants,
Republican Mitt Romney is holding a contest for supporters to create video
ads using images provided by the campaign site and to select
the best. (Such an event shows both upsides and risks;
SlateV, the video service of Slate Magazine, produced a
short parody of the project.)
But while Web 2.0 tools open up more channels to engage
voters – including channels supporters open up themselves
– the new applications also emphasize reaching the
smaller markets, rather than the mass. “Politics today
has become about [getting] hundreds of small hits rather than
one big hit,” observes Paul Gillin, a social media consultant
and author of The New Influencers.
“Whatever they can do in the world to get that edge,
they’ll do,’’ says Alan Webber, a customer
experience analyst at Forrester Research, in Washington, D.C.
Edwards, for example, “has the longest list of social
networking sites I’ve ever seen,” 23 at last count,
Therein lies a potential quagmire. Although Web 2.0
applications offer the ability to go after a targeted
audience—especially those age 30 and younger—and
reach them in a fast, efficient, easy and less expensive way,
Webber believes the message itself is getting diluted.
That’s true in Edwards’s case, Webber says,
claiming that his presence on a vast number of social
networking sites shows he is “trying to be everything to
Gillin adds that the Edwards’s campaign is using Twitter, a mobile blog that lets
users send group IMs to people who subscribe to this
service. (The campaign’s entries are sporadic compared to
say, a teenager posting “tweets” on a MySpace page.)
But Edwards is not the only one who is spreading himself all
over the Web. Webber believes most of the candidates are guilty
of not addressing the issues people care about in a substantive
way online. “Everybody in politics is so worried about
that last vote that….we lose a lot of the coherence and
understanding of who the candidate is, what they actually stand
for and what their actual message is because they go across so
many different mediums and channels.”
Candidates’ Market Share on the
The following Hitwise.com data ranks
U.S. market share of website visitors for major
presidential candidates from a sample of 10 million U.S.
Internet users. The data is for the week ending Nov. 17,
When you consider Ron Paul’s haul of donor dollars,
there’s no denying Web 2.0 offers new and addictive ways
for political junkies to get information about the candidates
they might not otherwise hear on the nightly news anywhere,
anytime and in so many places. So many blogs. So many YouTube
videos. So many social networking links. Meetup.com still offers notices on
gatherings for the like-minded, and Eventful.com seeks to generate demand
online for candidates to show up in locations around the
Gillin says Web 2.0 applications are making it easy for the
candidates to spread their message virally because
“you’re leveraging your enthusiasts to do your
campaigning for you.”
Flash back to 2004, when the Web was merely a tool for
communication between the campaigns and their supporters
“and the only feedback mechanism was to [respond to]
small contributors who could give money and
ideas,’’ says Robert Shrum, a retired political
consultant who advised several Democratic presidential
nominees, including John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000.
Shrum, who is now a senior fellow at New York University, says
the current group of candidates is building on what happened
four years ago.
In 2004, Democrat Howard Dean and other presidential
hopefuls launched fund-raisers online, and Meetup.com provided
a bulletin board for like-minded citizens to gather and discuss
their favorite candidates.
This year’s tools represent “phase two of that
work—you make it far more possible for them to
communicate with each other and the rest of universe,”
Shrum believes one of the most effective uses of Web 2.0
applications is the ability to create an online ad campaign and
not have to spend millions of dollars running television spots.
He notes that Hillary Clinton, for example, posted a spot on
the Web the day after a televised presidential debate, showing
her and former President Bill Clinton in a diner, à la
the final episode of The Sopranos, which Shrum says
was well-produced and got her a lot of attention.
Webber questions the authenticity of these campaign-produced
pieces, calling them a series of self-serving messages.
“I think voters have looked and seen what’s out
there and they realize it’s just another bullhorn for
[the candidates] to tout their less-than-coherent and
less-than-completely truthful message.”
Webber argues that before social networking became a trend,
political bloggers were “digging the dirt to get the
honest truth out there and what they saw with these
candidates.” With the advent of social networking sites,
the candidates are able to create pages that often are nothing
more than “ideological mouthpieces and masks,” he
Shrum says he expects the Web medium to be a self-correcting
force, with people creating websites to counter positions (and
candidates) they don’t like. “The Web has a way of
being self-correcting,’’ he says, and the next
development will be “sites that critique the
In a “what-if” scenario, Web 2.0 would have been
particularly effective in an election as close as the
Kerry-Bush battle in 2004, Shrum maintains. “Everything
would have made a difference—[the ability to] create a
virtual community in Ohio, for example,’’ where a
small margin carried the swing state for Bush. Shrum predicts
that as advances are made in voice recognition technology, in
coming elections voters will see more effective real-time blogs
and more real-time conversations.
Candidates Knocking on Every Digital Door They Can
But in the here and now, the candidates are racing to reach
out and connect with people wherever they can find them online.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has posted more than
400 videos on YouTube since January that have received 2.5
million page views, according to Stephen Smith, director of
Online Communications for the Romney campaign, in Boston.
The Romney campaign has built its own social network so when
someone signs up on the site, he gets a username and password
and can create events, invite friends, solicit small donations
among his friends, family and coworkers and customize his own
profile, Smith says. The campaign has also built “Mitt
TV,” with 10 different channels, each programmed with
content such as video essays on immigration, lowering taxes,
his opposition to same-sex marriage, and health care, as well
But Smith acknowledges that his organization doesn’t always
know how effective the various online methods are.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge whether
they’re working,’’ he says, although he is
encouraged by the number of responses people post.
So businesses, beware. Web 2.0 applications can be very
effective marketing tools, “but you have to balance the
marketing aspect with the creation and development and
nurturing of the relationship,” Webber says.
“We want to read [the message] and listen to it for a
while, but we want to engage with someone in a conversation
about what our problems are and how we can solve them,”
Webber says. Social networking technologies may offer the
ability for dialogue, but whether both sides are willing to
engage in that conversation is a question for analysis later in
the 2008 race.