What Politics Teach About Online Marketing (Redux)

Plenty’s been written about how politics have finally embraced the Web. With his DeanLink site and daily blogs, Howard Dean became the poster boy for doing it right. Though he didn’t snag the Democratic nomination (frothy-mouthed screaming tends to undermine good works, for some reason), his cybercampaigning set the tone for the rest of the election — at least, until someone comes up with something else.

The campaign’s big news for online marketers is the big money allocated to interactive and the campaigns’ sheer speed create an interesting public laboratory for online do’s and don’ts. We can all benefit from studying some of the triumphs and gaffes of the online presidential campaigns to get quick feedback as to what does and doesn’t work. Of course, this means having to suffer through actually looking at the stuff, but anything for progress, right?

Blog Tactics

Much industry attention toward online campaigning has centered around blogging. Blog, blog, blog… we’ve all heard it so often, it’s starting to sound like “blah blah blah.” Blogs didn’t save Dean. Blogs, when you think about what they are (at least, how they’re used in the presidential campaigns), really aren’t all that new or revolutionary.

In theory (and practice for most personal blogs out there) blogs are personal, relatively unedited streams of consciousness from the writer. In campaign practice, blogs are just a hip (albeit getting less so) way of publishing news and opinion and a way of reacting quickly to ongoing events. Because they aren’t labeled “news,” blog entries are able to get away with more informality, a more off-the-cuff approach, and a little less (how do I put this?) factually-based information than official press releases.

How well are the campaigns using blogs? Not being a bigwig Washington insider (thank God!), I don’t have traffic numbers. But it’s interesting to look at the tactics used.

Both President Bush and Sen. Kerry use their blogs to publish campaign information, quick statements, and opinions on events more or less as they happen. Both campaigns have given up the conceit their candidates actually write the blogs, choosing instead a group-blog format with authors identified on each post.

Pretty normal stuff, right? But now that Kerry’s the de-facto candidate and the Bush ads are laying on the negativity, the Kerry folks have launched the Dbunker blog as a means of quickly pushing rapid-response team info onto the Web.

Though the name is a little odd (“bunker” conjures up images of despots hiding in holes), the tactic has a lot of merit, especially in times of corporate scandals and crisis communications. Information (and rumors) have never moved faster. E-mail, IM (define), and blogging can spread bad stuff way faster than old-school crisis communicators can counter it in traditional media.

By framing it as a blog and tapping into a format in which people expect a constant stream of news and opinion, the Kerry campaign is able to respond with “official” statements that somehow don’t seem as much like spin as a traditional press conference, news release, or more “formal” methods do.

For e-marketers, the method is worth careful analysis. It works because it uses the Web for something that can’t be done any other way: broadcasting information the moment it’s necessary, in a format designed for just that. Many corporate blogs have devolved into informal press-release postings. Companies have forgotten blogs aren’t just news; they’re timely, opinionated news. That’s why we read them.

If you want to use blogs in your corporate communications, take the time to analyze why (“because everyone else is” isn’t good enough) and how you’ll use them. If blogs don’t fit expectations, they just feel hokey. They can work, though. Ask Rep. Ben Chandler.

Before You Interact…

Another, funnier online tactic is a painful lesson in why you must think before posting neat-o interactive tools on your site for users to “experience.” The Bush-Cheney campaign created the Sloganator, a nifty tool allowing supporters to create their own campaign posters. Users could type custom slogans into the Sloganator and were rewarded with their very own PDF campaign poster, suitable for posting or sending to friends.

No one had the forethought to realize allowing people to add their own messages might have unintended consequences. The link flew around the Web. Pranksters (and Democrats) had a grand ol’ time creating posters before the site was shut down, modified with canned slogans, then relaunched.

The lesson is people will use your online tools for purposes you may never have dreamed of. Just as misusing blogs can have negative consequences, so can not thinking through all the angles before launching that nifty interactive tool. For great examples and commentary about unintended online consequences, read Doug Simpson’s Unintended Consequences blog.

The moral of this story? Nobody’s figured it all out. Though as the campaign heats up and money’s poured into the Net, the fallout should make interesting pickings for anyone interested in how to use — or not use — the Internet.

Sean is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

Related reading