July 1st, 2010
All Buzz is Good Buzz: Taking Online Rapid Response to the Next Level
Staying Two Steps Ahead of Other Political Campaigns
By Chris Talbot
One tactic already logged in the (very young) internet politics playbook is online rapid response — though as you’ll read below, its value can certainly be expanded. The mantra “Speed Kills” is not new, but because of online technology the pace has quickened. The timeframe to act begins within minutes of news breaking: simply put, you must be on 24-hour alert to engage the web — with its myriad searchers, surfers, chatterers, tweeters, and sharers — whenever the currents shift.
The most visible demonstration of the principle came last year when Joe Wilson shouted “Liar!” at President Obama’s healthcare address. The identification of the South Carolina congressman, a previous unknown at the national level, was made by traditional media outlets at 9pm; within minutes, people were looking online for news and info about him; blogs picked up the story; millions of people pushed the buzz around social networks — adding their own commentary along the way. By 10pm, “Joe Wilson” was the fastest rising Google search in America.
That groundswell presented immediate and obvious ways for Wilson and his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, to build email lists and raise funds — and both camps did [Ed: C.f. E.pol coverage]. But ask yourself this: wouldn’t “Joe Wilson” have been a valuable news topic for any 2010 House candidate? Or any organization involved in the health reform debate? Most campaigns only engage in rapid response tactics when news is directly related to their candidate, despite the fact that millions of their constituents seek political news online each day.
Why? Because this is how it’s always been done — or more precisely: this is the only way it could be done when soundbites and news reporters ran the realm, and most campaigns have yet to grasp that web engagement is fundamentally different. As for news that isn’t specific to the campaign? Well, it would be especially interesting for down-ballot candidates (as well as any challenger lacking name ID and momentum) if there were a way to inject themselves into all the hot news conversations of the day. And now you can.
First, let’s look at the technology: multi-point conversations occuring online create a prepackaged army of evangelists — people are champing at the bit to recast anything interesting, inspiring, enraging, or humorous (perhaps if each individual had a small network logo pasted in the corner of their profile, then operatives would start to pay attention…). A campaign’s well-crafted take on any news story can generate a ripple effect.
And, paid digital media is an even better rapid response vehicle to leverage indirect news. Precision targeting lets a campaign home in on specific issues and audiences, across news and social outlets, with numerous additional filters (geographic, demo, background and behavioral, whether the user has visited the campaign website in the past, etc) — in most cases you pay only when readers actually click and enter your site. Each and every constituent who consumes online news can be reached with a relevant message — even when that news is not about you.
Case in point: When Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election last January, GOP candidates around the country leveraged the spike in online reading and sharing — despite having zero direct connection to Brown’s campaign. Office-seekers from Illinois to California (and even one 2012 presidential hopeful) ran ads congratulating Brown and asking people to support their own “Blue to Red” effort. I know of one statewide candidate in the Midwest who generated more traffic this way in three days than the campaign’s entire online ad buy had delivered in a whole month. Talk about winning the news cycle!
The possibilities for expanded rapid response are exponential: there’s no additional cost for campaigns to reach pre-engaged voters on dozens of issues rather than just one or two. All you have to do is provide relevant content to generate sign-ups and donations. For those of us in the know, the absence is puzzling: why have so few candidates used low-cost online ads to list-build among oil spill newsreaders (after all, BP is doing it)? Why was the DNC the only organization on the left building traffic off the Goldman Sachs/SEC story? This is indicative of a larger problem for Democrats: while many GOP campaigns and committees have made a push for stronger digital strategies, there is a broad gap between the savvy approach of the administration/DNC and their Democratic brethren down the ticket.
The Digital Age
There is a lot of excitement at the crossroads of politics and technology — in part because there is so much raw potential, so many ideas unapplied, and a ton of uncharted territory. With a lot of unknowns on the map, here are three things we can say for certain: first, digital communications will revolutionize all aspects of political campaigning. Next, campaigns that enhance rapid response techniques will gain an advantage in more volunteers and more money raised. And third, this sort of fine-tuning is just a glimpse into the many advances — tactical, strategic, and gamechanging — that will come to pass in the digital age of politics.
Back when I worked at Google, a colleague on the political team made a wise point about digital campaigning: comparing America’s first decade of broadband internet to broadcast television (debut: 1946), today’s online strategy would be akin to a campaign’s TV approach in the early Eisenhower years. Those days, few people recognized the power television could wield over politics. We’d yet to see Kennedy’s televised debate victory over Nixon in 1960 (old hands chuckle at the lesson therein: radio listeners thought Nixon had won). And it would be another eight years before a young Roger Ailes impressed Nixon with his own manipulation of the medium — in the prologue of a career to culminate with the launch of Fox News.
The point is this: today we know very little about the internet. So nascent are the products and uses of the web medium (which has revolutionized personal computing and will soon make a similar imprint upon all phone and video engagement), and the tactical know-how among political operatives remains even less developed. Those with the most seasoned political acumen have thus far ignored online communications, leaving it to a generation of digital natives to innovate and consolidate best practices. The next decade will bear witness to the maturation of professional fluency in web communications. For now, we are penning the prologue of our digital playbook in politics, with many blank pages to fill.
Thanks Chris! And good luck on the new venture — why do I get the feeling that there’ll be quite a few people looking to talk to a Google Ad guru this summer….