Updated January, 2011
Though online video has really broken out big in the last five years, campaigns and random citizens have been using short video clips (live-action or animated) to promote their ideas and pummel their enemies for years. But broadband’s easy availability and the explosion of video posting sites like YouTube makes it much more effective than before — users no longer hesitate to click on video links like they might have a few years ago, and you’re not going to lack for easy places to post your content as an outreach tool. Plus, tools like Twitter and Facebook now provide additional ways to spread the word about each new piece of video content.
Of course, the huge expansion of online video makes it hard to break through the clutter: the next “Yes We Can” is competing with millions of YouTube clips created by both amateurs and professionals. Besides the new generation of home video enthusiasts, music labels are promoting bands, broadcast networks are hyping their shows, and P.R. firms from all over the world are pushing “clever” promotional video clips in hopes of viral takeoff..
Why Use Video?
Campaigns have found that video can be a powerful tool in part because it helps create more of an emotional connection with a subject — having someone TELL you about a political issue is usually more compelling than reading about it. Also, good video can take complex issues and make them immediately understandable, in that picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words way. One consideration, though, is that video is often quite time-consuming. Posting an unedited clip is relatively easy, but anything that needs editing can quickly turn into a huge project. I’ve heard video producers estimate 30-40 hours of work to produce a 3-minute clip, if it needs to be scripted, shot and edited.
So, now that we’ve decided to use video (or animation), how do we do it? First, campaigns can host clips on their own websites, blogs and MySpace sites/Facebook pages to vividly illustrate their ideas, to show their candidates in a godlike light, to highlight opponents’ misdeeds and overall perfidy, etc. This tactic is really a no-brainer, and you’re only limited by your ability to create content — plenty of people are doing amazing things with $200 video cameras, and hosting is cheap unless you’re getting gigabytes of data accessed weekly. Good video (and Flash animation) can make your case in a dramatic and immediate way and is often the centerpiece of viral campaigns. One particular advantage of using video hosting sites is that you can usually “embed” the video in your own page: paste in a snippet of code, and your readers can watch the video directly on your site without having to open the video clip as a separate document.
One note — if possible, “watermark” your pieces so that your URL displays within the picture as they play. This way, if someone copies the file and distributes it independently of your site, viewers will still have a way to find you. And if your video is specifically intended to spur action, be sure to end it with a definite call for people to take that action, usually accompanied by a link that provides an opportunity to do it. Also, besides linking to issue-specific clips in the appropriate places on your site, you’ll probably want to create a central page that collects all of your video (and/or audio) in one place. Finally, when you post a video to YouTube or a similar hosting site, pay close attention to the description and keywords you include along with the video clip itself — they’re extremely important in helping users of the site find your content as they search for information (or momentary distraction).
Next, campaigns can use video as an outreach tool by posting clips on Google video, YouTube or their competitors, hoping to capture new supporters as they come across them. Most sites will allow you to create a “channel” that gathers all of your videos in one place and may allow you to link back to your main site or your action center. Again, watermarking is a good idea, as is carefully crafting the short text descriptions video-hosting sites typically allow you to add to your content — they’ll help your pieces show up when people use Google or the search engines built into the video sites themselves.
Posting videos is the beginning of the battle, but if you really want them to be seen, you’ll need to spread the word using all of your normal promotional mechanisms. Link to them from your main website and social network profiles, promote them to your email list, and make sure that it’s as easy as possible for viewers to forward your link to others (a feature generally built into video-sharing sites). Also, keep in mind that YouTube and other video-sharing sites usually display a handful of popular or noteworthy clips on their front page and on category pages, and your viewership can spike if you can build enough traffic on your own to start being featured. Pay close attention to copyright! Some sites will reserve the right to use your content for their own purposes.
What Kind of Content?
As you’re developing your online video strategy, don’t forget to think about the KIND of content you’ll be producing. Political campaigns have typically focused on slick-looking video equivalents of their television commercials — John McCain’s videos in ’08, for example, or this hi-larious example from a 2010 Alabama statewide race — but professional isn’t always perfect. Obama’s 2008 campaign not only produced close to 2000 individual YouTube clips, they produced video in many flavors and for many purposes. Some pieces were intended for a broad audience, effectively serving as online campaign commercials, but others were aimed at volunteers and campaign staff — their goal was educational and motivational, and at times their relatively primitive production standards added to their perceived authenticity.
Social Media and Online Video
Finally, as discussed in much more detail in the chapter on Social Media, campaigns use video as an organizing and motivating tool by letting their supporters create and edit video content and upload it directly to the campaign site.