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Online Campaigns: Letting Go of Message Control to Build a Grassroots Network

The Internet is often referred to as the great equalizer due to the fact that it facilitates the wide dissemination and consumption of information.  Compare that to the average political campaign, which has historically kept ironclad control of the candidate’s brand and message.  But is rigorous management of messaging feasible in the Internet age?

In the past three election cycles, we’ve seen this trend change. Campaigns have been using the Internet to mobilize grassroots support, encouraging supporters to evangelize in their own ways.  It all started in 2004.

Crowdsourcing in Elections Past and Present

Howard Dean was an unknown and unlikely candidate early in the 2004 Democratic primaries.  Though he did not go on to become the nominee, he was able to come close through his novel use of the Internet for fundraising and community organizing.

The Dean campaign utilized Meetup.com to host community events around the country.  Initially, paid Dean staffers organized all the meetup events, but they soon realized they were limiting themselves.

“We were inadvertently allowing bottlenecks in the network through some power-hungry coordinators who thought they were the only ones who could have contact with the campaign.  We added or removed coordinators only through email or phone, and there’s a limit to our human ability to manage the growth of such a large network.”
Michael Silberman, the Dean campaign’s Meetup Coordinator

Eventually they switched to an automated online system that allowed Dean supporters to organize their own meetups.  They received materials from the campaign and had monthly calls with the staff, but the success of the meetups depended entirely on Dean supporters, not on the campaign.

The campaign also encouraged a wide network of bloggers to further discussion of Dean online; this bloggers were essentially given free rein to promote various ideas as they saw fit.

In the 2008 Democratic primary, Barack Obama’s campaign created a proprietary social networking platform within the website – my.BarackObama.com.  Supporters could create profiles, sign up or initiate local events and fundraisers, join or form groups, launch their own blogs, and engage with friends and fellow supporters.

This February, the Obama reelection campaign announced the launch of its ‘Truth Team,’ another example of ceding control to crowdsourced online campaigning.  The ‘Truth Team’ is to be comprised of any and all supporters interested in getting involved with the project.  The campaign has launched three websites with the goal of providing information about Barack Obama’s record, and about his opponents’ records, with the intent that supporters then disseminate that information among their network.

“We believe that our grass-roots supporters persuading their networks to support the president will provide us with the decisive edge in November.  We’re providing them with the tools they need to amplify the president’s record, fact-check the Republicans’ attacks and prevent the Republicans from rewriting the history of their records.”
Ben LaBolt, Obama campaign spokesman

Time will tell how this particular initiative plays out, and whether it can be viewed as a success.

While this type of messaging has worked well in past elections, there could be reasons to avoid it.

Drawbacks to Mass Messaging

There is a reason that political campaigns have typically maintained firm control over any and all messaging.  Inconsistency of message can be a political kiss of death.

People respond with mistrust and sometimes anger when campaigns can’t keep their stories straight.  Every candidate dreads being branded a flip flopper.

The argument could be made that supporters’ statements are not equivalent to official campaign messages, but if people perceive particularly active supporters to be operating with the campaign’s blessing, they may as well be one and the same.

While the campaign values everyone’s support, sometimes vocal supporters can actually do harm to a campaign.  Just ask Rick Santorum.

Another example is a controversial group of Obama supporters who defend the president on Twitter against attacks from the right and even criticism from the left.  They’ve come to be pejoratively referred to as Obamabots and it’s not clear that they’re helping the cause.

And yet there are drawbacks to maintaining complete control, which is easily accomplished when using traditional media but not so easily maintained online.

Let the People be Heard

Maintaining control means limited reach.   As the Dean campaign found in 2004, relying on only paid staffers and vetted volunteers can bottleneck events or information that would otherwise be spread widely.

Furthermore, recent research indicates that content is disseminated more effectively when shared by many people in similar circles versus content that’s shared by a few key influencers.  Content is more likely to be re-shared when it comes by way of a close friend or family member than when it comes from a celebrity or other ‘influential’ figure.

Encouraging supporters to take off on their own empowers them, connects them more deeply to the campaign and gives them more skin in the game, so to speak.

Overall, in the age of the Internet, the benefits of encouraging wide support online outweigh any messaging risks.  In the future crowdsourced campaigns may become the new normal, and the time when campaigns controlled everything will be but a memory.

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