Viral Marketing and Social Networking in Political Campaigns and Issue Advocacy

It’s instructive to read my 2009 post from my Brownstone Communications blog (http://brownstonecommunications.blogspot.com/) and consider what’s happened since then in the “new media” universe.  The game was changing then and it’s still changing now.  It’s had an incredible impact in the recent campaigns and has greatly the diminished the impact of the “mainstream media” and it’s ability to alone characterize the news they cover.  Here’s what I wrote in 2009:

The game is changing and changing fast. Any political consultant (or “new media” or “social networking” consultant) who claims they have a complete grasp on how websites, the internet, email, YouTube and social networking/media/bookmarking/blog sites like FacebookTwitterMySpace, RedStateCafeMomBeboBlackPlanetLinkedIn, del.icio.us, Digg, Reddit, Furl, StumbleUpon and Mixx (and many others, some which have yet to be created) will impact the upcoming elections is selling a bill of goods. But, they already are having a huge impact.

The fact of the matter is creative internet marketing as it relates to political campaigns is light years away from where it was just five or six years ago. It’s light years away from where it was in November 2008 and in 12 months it will be vastly different from where we are now. Scott Brown, Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, respectively are the latest big-time examples. It’s not just about knowing the tools and putting messages out, it’s creating the right messages and fully understanding how the tools interact with one another and can work together to achieve particular objectives.
While the Brown, Christie and McDonnell campaigns utilized social network/media marketing in their efforts, one could reasonably argue that the independent efforts of each campaign were more than buoyed by existing (independent and otherwise) efforts by disenfranchised and frustrated Americans who disagree with the policies of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama on a host of issues. The “tea party-esque” network of social media sites have grown organically and allowed these folks, like Ron Paul supporters before them, to broadcast and share opinions like never before. Just as importantly, to find and network with one another. Nearly every valid and independent study or poll demonstrates that Republicans and conservatives are (currently) using these tools much more effectively than Democrats or the left, but perhaps necessity breeds invention for those who are out of power and trying to unite against the establishment.
It didn’t start with conservatives or Republicans, however. In 2004, former Vermont Governor and Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean changed the way the internet was viewed by political consultants, the mainstream media and voters. All too often, in politics as in business, innovation starts with seemingly insurmountable odds, lack of resources and insurgency. Dean was a little-known candidate from a small state without the institutional financial and political backing to win the race the way other candidates could. Ultimately, Dean didn’t win the race, but he did put his mark on history. Howard Dean used the internet in ways that no one (in politics) thought could be done to network supporters and raise money. In effect, what he did made a political nobody into a political somebody that had to be taken seriously.
Like big government and big business and big advertising, big-time politics is big-time risk averse. Governments and big corporations have stifling bureaucratic processes that stifle creativity and “thinking outside the box.” Big advertising agency and big-time political campaigns aren’t much different. When you think of the phrase “too many chefs” or “too many chiefs” you can just as easily apply it to a big ad agency or a big national political campaign as you can to a less-than-great kitchen or a tribal strategy session that doesn’t pack any punch.
Creativity is risky. And Howard Dean needed to take risks. He had no name. He had no money. No one knew who he was. As the Governor of a small state that seemed foreign and inconsequential to many across the country, about the only thing he did have going for him was that he was articulate, he was passionate and he was a physician. Well, that and $3.25 will get you a pretty good latte at Starbucks. Dean’s campaign used a web tool calledMeetup to organize passionate, motivated supporters. It started small but grew like the old Breck commercial. “I told two friends. And we told two friends. And so on. And so on.” Dean’s campaign found supporters via this web tool. The supporters grew and donated money. The money earned Dean respect from the mainstream media, more coverage and more momentum. Thus, more people were motivated to join the campaign until Dean’s primal and final scream in Iowa represented the end to a great venture. Make no mistake, more than John Kerry, Howard Dean made political history.
Fast forward four years and it’s a lot easier to remember how the Presidential campaign of an unknown first term U.S. Senator from Illinois who was African-American, had a strange name, had little money or institutional support (compared to Senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton) harnessed the power of the internet in his successful effort. If one was watching, he had to be shocked, amazed, surprised and impressed every single day of the last Presidential campaign. Every day, various audiences experienced another creative way that the Obama campaign was using another tool on the internet to reach out to them and connect them to one another. It is hard to imagine an effort being more effective. Just like in business and advertising, political campaigns take what works and use it. Over and over and over again. They keep using it. The same model. To be more creative or do something different is too risky. Ads look the same. Fundraisers look the same. Comments from the candidates sound the same. Until someone shifts the paradigm.
Dean shifted the paradigm and Obama had already begun learning from Dean’s experience in his race for the US Senate in 2004. Dean was out by February 2004. Obama’s US Senate election wasn’t until November. And Obama was an insurgent, unknown, underfunded, underdog at that time. The campaign, to its credit, used everything Dean taught them and beat all the big money, all the institutional candidates and all the candidates with more familiar names — in a landslide. Once again, the upstart, underfunded, long-shot candidate broke the rules and made history. The Obama U.S. Senate campaign learned from Howard Dean, improved upon it and changed the rules of the game. Obama’s Presidential campaign took that to new heights.
Many don’t realize that one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes leftFacebook and joined the Obama campaign early in the process. Obama had a website that was user-friendly and easy to network with other supporters, donate money, volunteer and provide relevant information that the campaign used to keep in touch, to share targeted information with targeted audiences and to grow support. While Obama had over 3,000,000 supporters onFacebook McCain’s support crested at more like 200,000. And Obama had presence on MySpaceTwitter and other social networking sites including those that targeted specific ethnic, racial, gender or other things that drew them together.
The Obama Presidential campaign, as far as internet savvy, effectiveness and reach, was like the Dean Presidential Campaign or Obama U.S. Senate Campaign on steroids. So, the natural reaction by the establishment is to look at what Obama accomplished and simply choose to duplicate it. Well, let’s be honest, if a candidate can come close to duplicating it, he or she would be at a good place to start. If a candidate has an established name, has a good fundraising base and has a reasonable amount of charisma and attractiveness, that candidate will likely be well-served by generally following the Obama model. But if that candidate is going to be beaten, in large part it will be because they are out organized, out-hustled and out-thought by motivated and better-networked organization in this ever-changing landscape.
The universe is changed. How many of you on Twitter today were on Twitter when Hillary Clinton started campaigning for the Presidency and the young upstart from Illinois came on the national scene? Be honest. None of you (excepting the IT professionals, of course) had ever even heard of Twitter. And many of you aren’t even there yet. If you joined Twitter in 2008, theTwitter you knew then is already very different than the Twitter we experience today. How many of you were on Facebook? Not nearly as many. Not me. And if you were on Facebook, what was the average age of your colleagues there and how many of your friends, family members, co-workers and former classmates of yours were there in 2007? I can tell you thatFacebook and Twitter have both grown considerably in this time. Demographics of the two have evolved differently. The applications and opportunities and methods of reaching people in either universe is dramatically different. And you can’t ignore LinkedIn and other professional and social networking sites (and media sharing sites). They each play unique roles. They each have unique, somewhat overlapping audiences. Different messaging and methods are necessary to utilize the most useful aspects of each, combined with many, many other media tools and the the obvious websites, blogs and YouTube will be ignored at one’s own peril.
We’re seeing the dynamic evolve now. It’s the insurgents and underfunded upstarts leading the way. While Dean and Obama used the old network (amazing that it was only four years ago and 1-2 years ago and that network is already dramatically different) on big national campaigns, this is the first time we’ll be fighting on this new landscape with thousands of state legislative races, statewide office races and Congressional races.
There are over 100 social networking websites and services. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg in regard to the best way to utilize all those different tools together in an integrated way. And, to be honest, as much as it frustrates big government, big corporations, big advertising agencies and big, establishment political campaigns, there is no “best way.” Each of the sites is evolving (or devolving) at breakneck speed. The way they relate to one another is changing quickly. And political campaigns and issue advocacy campaigns have increasingly gone from a mass-marketing campaign to myriad of micro-targeting and niche marketing efforts all under the banner of a larger air war.
Things are changing and changing fast. Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of Mashable and perhaps the world’s foremost expert (if there can be one) on social media wrote the following for CNN exclusively on November 19, 2009: “As 2009 draws to a close with Twitter undoubtedly this year’s media darling and Facebook continuing on its path to global dominations, you may wonder which social-media service will become tech’s poster boy in 2010. Among the Web’s early adopter set, the answer is nearly unanimous: Foursquare.”
(It looks like Pete Cashmore was right and I’d encourage you to follow him to remain current on how social media is impacting business, politics and public affairs.  I’d also encourage you to visit my website at www.brownstonecommunications.us or my blog at http://brownstonecommunications.blogspot.com/)

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