Political Campaigns and Nonprofits Sort Out CGM

When it comes to politics and social media, the “C” in CGM stands for “citizen,” not “consumer.”

But in many other respects, the political campaigners and issues advocates who are dogging the MySpace crowd have a lot in common with commercial marketers.

Like their profit-driven brethren, political organizations and nonprofits are trying to determine how best to integrate CGM into campaigns. And like those marketers, the political set hopes to find the right balance between encouraging supporters and maintaining control over campaign messages.

“The challenge as a political candidate is you don’t want to dampen anybody’s enthusiasm, but you don’t want someone running your campaign who’s not you,” explained Mark SooHoo, VP of Campaign Solutions, a political consulting firm that works with right-wing candidates.

More and more campaigns are starting to think about how they can use new digital communication outlets like blogs, RSS feeds and social networking sites. Observed SooHoo: “Because of all those things together they’re beginning to invest more in their online strategies and take a comprehensive look at all of these things.”

Online social networking and CGM have become integral parts of PETA’s marketing strategy, for instance, specifically when it comes to reaching out to teens. The animal rights activist group posts video to YouTube, IFILM, MySpace and Google Video. “These are videos that wouldn’t be approved for TV because of graphic content,” said PETA Marketing Manager Joel Bartlett.

Bartlett soon may have more assistance in managing relationships with netizens; He recently got approval to hire an e-community coordinator. The new staffer will be responsible for overseeing the group’s online message boards, podcasts, blog, and mobile marketing campaigns, as well as coordinating its efforts with those of supporters who upload images and video to sites like Flickr and YouTube. PETA already posts videos submitted by users to its PETA TV site, and sends out daily bulletins to over 64,000 MySpace friends.

“Historically, PETA was intimidated by giving more control to the users,” recalled Bartlett. Those days are long gone now that PETA has built a Street Team network of over 160,000 teens over the past four years, many of whom use online message boards, MySpace pages, and other Web venues to get the word out on animal rights issues and demonstrations.

“We believe that we need to put an effort into getting people to do [CGM] more and more,” said Bartlett.

Letting the Netroots Grow Wild

Some campaigns are more hands-off when it comes to CGM-spawning advocates. Consider the “Nedheads,” a YouTube group created by supporters of Ned Lamont, a Democratic Senatorial Primary contender whom many believe is gaining ground because of his netroots backing.

“They know they can’t control it,” suggested YouTube user Scarce, the Lamont fan who initiated the group on the free video distribution site. Although Scarce said he has talked to people on the Lamont campaign, Lamont’s staff hasn’t gotten too involved with the Nedheads’ grassroots video collective, which sprung up on its own, independent of the campaign.

Scarce, who declined to share his full name, spends hours each week joining in online discussions, commenting on blogs and creating Web video clips in support of the candidate, who’s running against incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s August primary. Along with a core group of a couple dozen like-minded activists, the amateur video producer posts pro-Lamont speeches, TV appearances and other footage to YouTube. The Nedheads have posted over 125 clips to the site since their group of nearly 500 people was established in late March. The Lamont campaign could not be reached by publication time.

“This kind of stuff is just beginning,” observed Scarce. “People are a lot more aware of what the Web can do for them, and Joe Lieberman is aware of what it can do against him.” Scarce may be right. Search YouTube videos and groups for Joe Lieberman and you’ll find over a hundred videos, many critical of the Senator.

The Lamont campaign is “a real people-powered campaign,” said Michael Bassik, VP Internet advertising at political consulting firm MSHC Partners, who contends that underdog efforts like Lamont’s tend to benefit from less top-down management, whereas a more established candidate’s campaign may require more message control to avoid citizen-generated-headaches.

My(Campaign)Space

A search for “Phil Angelides” on YouTube results in some 20 videos comprised of TV ads produced by the campaign, television appearances and footage shot at campaign events. But the recent California Democratic Gubernatorial Primary winner has his share of detractors. One video post entitled “Phil Angelides Cash” scrolls through a long list of donors from outside California. Another plays a negative TV ad for Steve Westly, his failed primary opponent. Both politicos have MySpace pages.

A post to Angelides’s MySpace blog from a campaign volunteer last week prods supporters to help boost the candidate’s MySpace friends tally, requesting that supporters post about Angelides as well as rank him in their top eight friends, so his picture appears on their main profile pages.

“No one really knows if [CGM] is going to have a persuasive impact but that’s not necessarily the point,” concluded MSHC’s Bassik. He stressed the fact that new online outlets enable supporters to build communities and meet other like-minded folks.

Indeed, all these new-fangled methods of communication can be considered digital extensions of traditional campaigning. Campaign Solutions’s SooHoo put it simply: “All of politics is social networking… Really, it’s just going out and saying, ‘Hi, I need your vote.’ ”

Perhaps the most notable example of an organically-grown political Web community was the one that fueled Howard Dean’s Democratic Presidential Primary run in 2003. Campaign manager Joe Trippi has been quoted as saying that he hadn’t realized the potential of the online community site Meetup until he saw the throngs of Dean supporters who showed up at a Dean Meetup event in New York.

Edwards Dives In

Though some campaigns have yet to incorporate social networking and CGM into their strategies, Democratic Senator John Edwards has embraced them for about a year now. He held a dinner for bloggers in his home last June, and did his first podcast about a year ago, in conjunction with The One America Committee, an anti-poverty organization he runs with his family. The group also posts videos on YouTube.

“We post our video on YouTube because there’s an audience there,” commented One America Committee Technology Advisor Ryan Montoya, who believes the YouTube posts are helping attract an audience that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in political issues.

Now Hiring CGM Master, Apply Within

One America members have taken initiative to add their own touches to the organization’s Web site. They’ve created a diary featuring a weekly roundup of Edwards-related news, which according to Montoya, has become one of most popular diaries on the site. “That’s something that we can’t do, but the community can do it and they do it quite well,” he said, acknowledging a need for more help in the CGM department.

“There is a need. It’s one thing to keep a Web site up to date; it’s one thing to keep a blog up to date,” he explained. However, whereas campaigns once only needed a Webmaster, “Now you need a CGM master.” Montoya continued, “There are new roles and there will be new roles created in several organizations to adapt to this stuff.”

Though most major senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial campaigns have someone on staff dedicated to interactive communications tasks, most have no one who deals specifically with social networks and CGM, according to MSHC’s Bassik.

“I don’t think a whole lot of people are changing their [campaign staff] structures just yet,” commented SooHoo.

However, with devoted volunteers like Nedhead Scarce, they may not need to. “We’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing,” promised the Lamont advocate.

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