How to Build a New Media Campaign Strategy...
Another NY Times article is highlighting, once again, the over-hyped importance of internet (a.k.a. - "New Media") strategies in political campaigns. The article describes the Obama campaign's use of its official websites like My.BarackObama.com, along with private social-networking sites like Facebook, in creating a grassroots army that it attributes to Obama's success.
So with all the talk of New Media strategies this campaign season, what does it take to actually build a New Media strategy?
First of all, as the article correctly points out, you absolutely must cultivate a strong presence on the social-networking websites. Both Obama and McCain have online profiles on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and the rest of the usual suspects.
But the real question is why are these social-networking sites so important? The answer is that, different from an ordinary website that simply publishes information about the candidate (like the official campaign sites), the Facebooks and Myspaces of the world make it easy for people to show their support for their favorite candidate by "friending" them. For example, when I login to my Facebook account, I might see that my sister just "friended" John McCain, and maybe even left a supportive message on his "wall", or perhaps created an "event" where she's trying to get her friends together at a bar next week to talk about McCain and raise a few dollars for his campaign.
With that scenario in mind, now consider how influential would it become if, when I logged into Facebook, I then noticed that a whole bunch of my "friends" were similarly showing their support?
The main point is that social-networking sites make it far more likely for a candidacy to go viral. By having a simple profile, candidates make it easy for supporters to organize themselves using a grassroots, bottom-up approach. And there have been thousands of these "events" organized by supporters on these websites where Obama has been able to, completely indirectly, raise hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors.
Second, and an equally crucial component of a New Media campaign strategy, is to harness the power of the so-called "social media" websites like Digg, StumbleUpon, and Reddit. Even if you've never heard of these sites, their impact on the campaign is a lot larger than you might think. Social media websites essentially list stories that are in the news today, and then let the public vote on which stories they like the best or find most important. The front page headlines on Digg, for instance, display the headlines for which the public voted, rather than those selected by an editorial board.
This might simply seem like a novelty, but the model helps strongly influence people's information consumption and consequent opinions in the same way that the front page and op-ed sections of the New York Times similarly help shape people's opinions. Since the news stories people read will invariably influence their political perceptions, a campaign's ability to promote positive stories about their candidate on such social media sites (as well as negative stories about their opponent) will have a significant effect on the political narrative being told.
Third, and still largely under-utilized by the major campaigns, are the social-bookmarking and microblogging tools like Del.icio.us, Friendfeed, and Twitter. Again, the point of creating a strong digital presence with such services is to promote stories and messages that shed positive light on your candidate, and to then easily communicate and enable the sharing of those messages among your supporters - often via text messages to cell phones - making it more likely that certain stories will go viral. Blogging communities can generate quite a buzz too, and, in fact, some blogs written by campaign staffers often get more mainstream media attention than the official campaign website itself.
Of course, there are still the remnants of Web 1.0 strategies which, while not as sexy, shouldn't be neglected. Primarily, every candidate absolutely must have an informative website that solicits donations and builds a mailing list, and maintaining a YouTube channel as well as a website specifically designed to counter attacks against your candidate are increasingly must-haves.
Thus, all of these elements - social-networking websites, social-media websites, social-bookmarking and microblogging tools, as well as traditional Web 1.0 sites - constitute the components by which a complete New Media political campaign strategy can be built.
There remains, of course, the question about how much all of this New Media campaigning ultimately matters on electoral outcomes, and on this point, I, for one, remain a skeptic. It may certainly help, but cultivating a strong digital presence with all of the aforementioned strategies still doesn't automatically translate into winning elections.
Just ask Ron Paul.