January 23, 2019

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Decision 2.008

Decision 2.008

Election 2008 will likely be remembered (at least among social media enthusiasts, if not the mainstream) for the candidates’ widespread participation in social media to relay their message to voters. Pioneered by Howard Dean’s 2004 effort, in which the candidate made savvy use of Meetup.com to organize supporters and made history with his online fundraising efforts, every major campaign in this year’s race features at least some social media engagement. Most major candidates’ websites offer links to personal blogs, home pages on social networking sites like [Facebook](http://facebook.com) and [MySpace](http://myspace.com), online video, voter blogs, [Twitter](http://twitter.com) and other microblogging platforms, and more.
All this online social engagement is interesting when you consider that the tightly controlled messaging machine of professional political campaigning seems to be an antithesis to the transparency of social media. In that light, the candidates’ engagement on this level, whether personally or by staffers and supporters, has attracted a fair bit of attention from both online and mainstream sources.
Mashable’s Mark Hopkins recently [reviewed](http://mashable.com/2007/12/05/social-media-and-american-presidential-candidates/) 17 of the presidential candidates’ social media efforts, noting that only “about two or three actually seemed to get how social media was supposed to work.” He was amazed at how badly even the leading campaigns failed at engaging in the correct way, accusing them of “quantity over quality.” He argues that some of the major candidates seem to focus their efforts on signing up for as many pages as possible, rather than attempting to personally engage on a few sites of value.
In his analysis, Noah Barron [provides](http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/071004Barron/) a synopsis of discussion from last fall’s [Webbyconnect](http://www.webbyawards.com/webbyconnect/topics/) panel, highlighting that “the panelists noted that many politicians allow finite debate and video posting in so-called ‘walled gardens’ of their campaign websites and MySpace pages, but haven’t yet embraced open-source politics.” Perhaps then, the tightly controlled messaging machine is winning out after all, and these social media efforts are purely cosmetic?
In some cases, after all, it is the supporters driving the 2.0 machine. The candidate with the largest online base, GOP candidate Ron Paul, seems to derive most of his support from web-savvy voters rather than a crack online marketing team as the richer campaigns may afford. The Web 2.0 “rock star” of Election ’08, Paul has repeatedly [broken](http://blog.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2007/12/16/ron_paul_beats_own_fundraising.html?hpid=topnews) fundraising records for both single-day and quarterly totals. This has mostly been driven by his online supporters organizing days in the style of “[bum rush the charts](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/21/AR2007032101971.html).” The tactic generated widespread interest for Paul in the mainstream media and increased interest from major online sources like Digg and Mashable.
It remains to be seen if his online dominance will lead Ron Paul to unexpected success in tonight’s Iowa caucuses–though according to the results of this week’s MySpace [primary](http://www.webware.com/8301-1_109-9839328-2.html) both he and Barack Obama are the social networking fans’ choice for the nominations. ReadWriteWeb is [predicting](http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/iowa_caucuses_obama_and_paul.php) a surprise Paul victory as a result of his online surge, but is quick to note that “real life” poll numbers tend to leave him well behind his GOP rivals.
The online engagement of presidential candidates will only continue to attract attention; it was already named one of the top Web [stories](http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/2007_top_10_web_tech_stories.php) of 2007, who knows what 2008 will bring? The true test of the effectiveness of this type of engagement will likely come as a comparison of the top online candidates as opposed to the results from the voting booth. If Paul is trounced despite his widespread Web 2.0 acclaim, will social media lose credibility as a political tool?
*John Cass is the author of “Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging.” He is a Research Fellow and Advisory Board member of the Society for New Communications Research, and was 2005/6 President of the Boston Chapter of the American Marketing Association. He also authors the [PR Communications](http://pr.typepad.com) blog.*

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