Brian Reich, EchoDitto
We are only part way through the 2008 election cycle and there have already been dozens, perhaps hundreds of articles written, TV hours spent, and blog comments posted about the role that the internet and technology are playing in this election cycle. The general consensus among the pundits seems to be that this is the year that technology, particularly social media, has had a significant impact on the outcome of the presidential election contest.
Unfortunately, that consensus is wrong and those pundits don’t know what they are talking about.
The web has certainly played a big role in this election cycle and is helping campaigns on both sides of the aisle collect millions of dollars in small contributions. But, the major campaigns have been slow to incorporate some of the best ideas from the last four years, instead relying on glossy new versions of the same old tactics and tools.
The 2008 campaigns have perfected some existing tactics and ideas... and technology is at a place now where some campaigns are able to operate more professionally and efficiently than ever before (the use of video being the best example). But there haven't been many earth shattering innovations, our democracy has not been revolutionized, and the prospect of radical change in this upcoming cycle remains limited.
What has worked this election cycle? Mostly the same old things; websites and email did not replace traditional methods of political involvement. In fact, the size of the crowds at candidate rallies has been seen as one of the greatest measures of success. Voters have still needed to meet their candidates face-to-face to feel comfortable with their style of leadership. The Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primaries were given even greater weight this year.
The media has tried to balance the need for breaking news stories with long, thoughtful profiles and in-depth analysis of key issues. Meanwhile, the additional commentary and analysis offered by the blogosphere has mostly amplified existing storylines, instead of breaking new ground. And each campaign still sent direct mail, aired television ads, made Get-Out-The-Vote phone calls, and granted interviews to generate favorable media coverage.
Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on so-called traditional campaign activities, while barely a fraction of that has gone towards new media campaigning. We are only part-way through the primary season and it looks like politics as usual has largely won the day.
I have three areas where I hope the campaigns will continue to innovate, as we go into the remainder of the primary season and through the general election.
1) Americans are no longer sitting in one place waiting for news, or political campaigns for that matter, to come to them. They are carrying mobile devices -- cell phones, PDAs and similar – and expecting to be able to connect from anywhere they please. This means the conversation about politics must adapt to meet those new standards.
The messages must be shorter and more focused; the communication must be timely and relevant; and the opportunities for feedback and response must be flexible (based on the user’s needs) and welcome. We have seen some experimentation with platforms such as Twitter, and a short-code in a television advertisement or two, but no meaningful investment or effort towards using this incredibly powerful platform to build and mobilize a base of support.
American campaigns should look at how politics are conducted overseas and the vibrant dialogue that voters and constituents have with their candidates and elected representatives via text message.
2) Voter expectations are at an all time high. We have already seen more video, even debates in which social sites like YouTube and Facebook offer their users a chance to question the candidates directly.
But where are the interactive ‘smart’ games, and more opportunities to use the web to take real action?
The campaigns continue to hold a firm grip on the messaging and activities of their campaign, failing to capitalize on the educational and inspirational opportunities that exist when the online audience is truly tapped for its input. Campaigns must continue lowering barriers for average citizens to get information and get involved. Allowing more people to send letters, knock on doors, and have person-to-person communications about real issues is a good thing. These opportunities need to be real and genuine, not to mention compelling, if they are to be effective.
3) Transparency is critical for ongoing success on the web, and for the survival of candidates on the stump today. The Internet has been made previously unavailable information accessible to everyone with a click or two.
But as the audience has grown -- in both size and sophistication -- too many political candidates and groups (and corporations, schools, nonprofits, and everyone else) are being selective about what information they post and when.
From my perspective, more information and more choices are a good thing. People can choose what they want to read, and how to think, and use the web to do it. Public figures, politicians in particular, should not be allowed to choose selectively what information the voters are capable of handling. The public won’t stand for that, and the need to communicate fully and openly will become the priority for all web efforts to succeed.
The Internet presents new opportunities for political campaigns and organizations to communicate more effectively with their stakeholders. A strong web presence and strategic use of email and other online tools allows campaigns to reach supporters and donors, volunteers, and the media more effectively.
These online tools must be incorporated into the overall strategy of an organization and used as a key extension of everyday activities to maximize the benefits they offer. Remember, web users are not like the target audiences for television and direct mail, and they need to be approached differently.
The Internet is a more effective tool for educating and energizing subscribers or supporters than any other. But if you look at it only as a tactic -- for raising money, or sharing only the information you believe is best -- you are missing out on a lot.