The Case Against Blogs and Twitter

Okay, I'm being facetious. The other explanation that I'm self-hating, as a blogger going on seven years and an avid Twitter user with a network of 2,451.

There is a serious point to this, and one that should be dramatized for the candidates running for RNC Chairman: the Internet is not just blogs and Twitter. New media is a big world -- from websites, to e-mail lists, to fundraising, to online advertising, to search engine optimization, to GOTV applications, to internal databases, to APIs, to YouTube, to mobile, to emerging platforms like iPhone/Android, and yes, to social media. Done wrong*, creating a Twitter account and holding a few blogger conference calls is the lowest cost form of engagement and can be a fig leaf for continuing business as usual in other parts of the organization. The hard part is integrating new media in everything the organization does, using it to transform volunteer recruitment, or open a new eight and nine figure revenue stream. Those are the big challenges the next RNC Chairman needs to be worrying about.

To understand where the growth markets are, let's look at how many people the Obama campaign had in each of its online programs, according to recent media reports:

The mainstream things people do online are 1) e-mail, 2) connect on Facebook and MySpace, and 3) watch video on YouTube. Video is not on here because I don't have a hard count of how many unique people watched Obama videos, but the advertising value of all Obama videos watched on YouTube was huge: over $46 million and bigger than the media budget for most primary and general election campaigns.

The difference between the Obama campaign and every other campaign is that they treated the online space as a mass medium, and not just a niche medium for the very interested. They announced online. They did their VP via text message. And they built up an e-mail list that was equal to almost 20% of their voters. They were maniacally focused on building up their e-mail list at every opportunity, requiring e-mail to attend events -- and even setting up dummy registration pages late in the campaign for events where an RSVP wasn't even required.

So, what's my "beef" with Twitter? As you can see, it's at the very end of the spectrum, at 140,000 Obama followers. That's good enough to make Obama the #1 user on Twitter -- though they've since abandoned the account -- but it's just over 1% of his most popular program -- e-mail. Nor is this to disparage social media: Obama had over 3 million supporters on Facebook and over 5 million friends on all social media properties combined, so we can't say social media hasn't arrived as a political force. Twitter is just nichier than most. And though I sung Twitter's praises as a political tool very early on, and still do, we need to put these numbers in perspective.

Twitter boosters would be right to suggest there is a tradeoff inherent in these numbers. As you move down the chart, the people in these groups get more and more active. Just under a third of the people on Obama's e-mail list provided 100% of his money. The two million people on MyBO supplied the bulk of the campaign's volunteer activity. And though I think the media get it wrong when they suggest Obama's online success is primarily due to social networking, there's no doubt that the care the campaign took to communicate on social networks -- a medium that eclipses television among 18-29 year olds -- had an effect. Not to mention the peer pressure inherent in seeing Facebook news feed items about 9,000 of your friends signing up as supporters of Barack Obama. This probably played a role in consolidating Obama's 2-to-1 youth victory, and shifting the national Congressional generic ballot 3 points to the Democrats.

But Twitter, which is the successor to the blogopshere in many ways, is a different animal. Twitter is the medium of choice for opinion leaders -- be they software engineers, political journalists, or bloggers. If you want to effect the influentials, Twitter, more so than blogs, is usually the way to do it -- I've had random tweets of mine show up in outlets like the Huffington Post. Thanks to the work of trailblazers like Rep. John Culberson (who kicked off the #dontgo movement on Twitter) and Michael Patrick Leahy's, it's very doubtful that the media can write the story about the left leading online on Twitter. Though Twitter users went about 86% for Obama -- this is an accurate measure of tech industry and non-political Twitter users -- political Twitter users probably lean right thanks to #TCOT.

That the right is seizing the Twitter moment is awesome, but I hope that we don't lose sight of the more mainstream technologies (email and video) that give us the power -- finally -- to communicate directly to the general public and bypass old and new media gatekeepers entirely.

I've been on numerous campaigns, some more open than others when it comes to technology. But even those campaigns that were more skeptical -- and whose bunker mentality caused them to lose -- always latched on to blogger relations. Blogger outreach is always the easiest thing to sell to a campaign because it's like the thing that traditional communications people most understand -- namely, pitching to reporters.

And the hardest thing to sell? Invariably it's anything that forces people to rethink their gameplan, and requires doing something differently instead of a quick win layered on top -- like announcing online instead of on TV, or loosening up control on your own website in exchange for more volunteer activity. Reaching out to bloggers is important and necessary, but it doesn't solve the problem of campaigns that are fearful of their own grassroots. Bloggers may often be political outsiders, but the ones campaigns usually deal with are an elite with thousands of readers -- the chattering class of the Internet. 

While new media is replacing old media, the model is still the same: campaigns passing along information to influential reporters/bloggers/Twitterati, and counting on them to spread the word to the general public. The Obama campaign showed that this model could be superseded. Through its 13 million strong list, the millions of people who would consume content all-digitally on YouTube, and the 2 million tied to the campaign umbilically through MyBO, the campaign built its own in-house messaging engine and didn't need the netroots, either in the primary or the general. Of the dozens of moving parts to Obama's online campaign, blogger outreach was probably the only one that got short shrift.

On the Republican side it was the opposite. Though the McCain camp's blogger outreach was superb, they had 50% fewer people working on the core web product than Bush did in 2004. That's because elite online media like blogs are probably inside the safety zone moreso than creating mass-based tools and communities that will serve the fundraising and political objectives of the campaign. If you explained the concept of MyBO to a campaign manager, they'd probably still freak out at the prospect of two million people hanging out on their proverbial lawn -- ignoring the potential for 200,000 volunteer events, $30 million raised, and 3 million volunteer phone calls in the final days. That was the real magic of the Obama campaign, much moreso than Twitter or anything the campaign did with blogs (which wasn't much, by design).

Newly minted RNC candidate Chip Saltsman hits on this very discussion in his platform:

I also believe in building online Republican communities – not lists. Instead of focusing on amassing email lists of the marginally interested, we must make a concerted effort to transform our websites into hubs worthy of the fervent political dedication of our online supporters. To achieve this goal, we must link Internet users to social networks and blogs of all sizes, and we must be willing to value openness and innovation as much as message control.

This is spot on in the context of the current (aging) RNC list, but ultimately, you need both communities and lists. Obama had a list of 13 million people and a smaller, more active community of 2 million people on MyBO. The latter group supplied the bulk of the money and volunteer energy, but without a list (built ethically and according to best practices) it's hard to herd the most interested 20% into a community. The "communities not lists" model -- was the hallmark of the Ron Paul and Huckabee campaigns and they only went so far.

Ultimately, only one person used the Internet to win the election in 2008. And he did basically everything -- maybe with less of an emphasis on blogs. As one of the major parties in the world's most advanced democracy, we should be able to do nothing less. That means a focus on recruting 5 million people -- bloggers and non-bloggers alike, moving our fundraising online, and giving people the tools to self-organize in their own communities.

* I say "done wrong" because when done right, Twitter can be a beautiful thing -- especially when the principal himself is the one doing it. (Just look at @JohnCulberson.) Without first person participation and hampered by tight message control, official Twitter accounts are just as worthless as official press releases "blogs."

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Ha!  You must not have too many youngins on this site since you neglected to mention his activity on facebook.

Obama has almost 3.5 million supporters on his facebook page which he uses to send out updates and reminders as well as occasionally funraise and direct attention to other issues.  Just fyi...

What matters is developing

What matters is developing the skills to understand the differences dictated by each new medium and optimizing for them.

I don't think Obama could have won without the netroots

that battle with Clinton was tight.

The quality of the experience of new media

Saltzman seems to get it. I particularly like the statement you highlight:

we must make a concerted effort to transform our websites into hubs worthy of the fervent political dedication of our online supporters.

Just as a TV ad, a radio ad and a direct mail piece are different experiences from one another, so too do new media provide different experiences. Organizations seeking to connect with supporters must understand what works in each medium. No one knew how TV would work until 1960 (and arguably it was Roger Ailes working with Nixon in 1968 who finally brought modern campaigning to TV). Now a lot of people are very deeply versed in how to use TV effectively in a campaign and what the differences between TV and, say, radio advertising are, etc. We must develop the same deep expertise in new media.

Take message discipline. Message discipline will be as important on Facebook as it is on TV, direct mail or a prime-time press conference. But just as message discipline is different in those three media (you communicate very differently in each), it will also be different on Facebook. All the hallmarks of a solid campaign still apply. What matters is developing the skills to understand the differences dictated by each new medium and optimizing for them.

In other words, if you're going to connect with me via Facebook, give me a genuine Facebook experience. That's the only way to get the most out of the medium.

Lists are only as good as their response rate.

I agree that we still need to build our list.  However, a list is only as good as its open/response rate. You can have a massive list, but it does you no good at all if the messages you send them remain unopened at the inbox.

Saltsman is right in his assessment that:

[W]e must make a concerted effort to transform our websites into hubs worthy of the fervent political dedication of our online supporters. To achieve this goal, we must link Internet users to social networks and blogs of all sizes, and we must be willing to value openness and innovation as much as message control.

I still believe that should be the central hub for everything center-right.  That means a fundamentally different approach to the content, the direction, and the degree of tolerance for what appears on the site.

I think his point about IEs is also on the money.  There is a lot the RNC could do to drive traffic and dollars to candidates via the web.

But your general theme is right.  Building a mass is important for traffic, e-mail lists, Twitter followers, and every other communications platform will be key.

Numbers versus influence

This though further begs a question of whether you can get misled by numbers and not account properly for influence. That is to say, 13 million on the email list, versus bloggers read by 100,000. Email sounds  more important  ... but if those 100,000 are the fervent politically active social influencers, you have a proportionately more important audience targetted in the other venue.

how you measure real influence from these activities is tricky at best.

The "hub" concept is good. More "2.0" / user-generated content is better.



social media

Social media is quite a very big field and it is impossible for just one person to optimize all the fields. One person could do it all, but there is not enough time for that person to do it all. You have to be careful which segment you choose or what person you are working with to develop one specific segment.
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