The Web innovators

We Americans tend to view the Internet as ours, forgetting that “www” stands for World Wide Web. But in the political world Europe is setting the standard and American campaigns are scrambling to catch up. Arguably it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who led the way with a political blog launched just before the World Cup in June of 2006. That blog, the Chancellor Direct, has since been reporting regularly on “what we are planning to do and what we are actually doing to move Germany forward.”

In the U.K. it was Conservative Party Leader David Cameron who led the way with a video blog called Web Cameron. The site features regular postings and video footage of Cameron engaged in real-world activities ranging from working as a teacher’s assistant to living with a Muslim family. Cameron, who hopes to move the Conservative Party to the center, clearly sees the Internet as a tool for making direct contact with voters.

France this year saw presidential campaigns that relied heavily on the Internet. In a country that does not allow television
advertising of campaigns, the Web became a primary tool for reaching voters. More than 1,500 political videos were posted in the final weeks of the campaign.

 Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party leader who eventually made the final round, led the way with her website, podcasts and parallel-universe campaign. But Nicolas Sarkozy, the eventual winner, quickly caught up and demonstrated a sophisticated use of the Web. The highlight of the Sarkozy effort was a five-minute video called the “Human Bomb” launched in the final 10 days of the campaign. At the time Sarkozy seemed to be losing the online battle to Royal and to left-leaning opponents who were posting apocalyptic predictions of a riot-torn France should the conservative politician win the election.

“Human Bomb” documented a true-life chapter from Sarkozy’s life when, as a suburban mayor, he personally negotiated with a deranged man who seized kindergarten students as hostages in 1993. Set to music lifted from the “Gladiator” soundtrack, the video captures the terror of parents, the chaotic confusion surrounding the event and the calm and heroic mayor carrying young children to safety in his arms. The video attracted more than 450,000 viewers. “We know there was a huge impact on people seeing the ‘Human Bomb’ and there was also a huge viral effect,” says Arnaud Dassier, a new-media consultant to the campaign.

On this side of the pond, American candidates are learning from these Web innovators. All of the presidential candidates have a Web presence and most launched their campaigns with some sort of Internet announcement. Most have blogs. All rush their campaign television commercials to YouTube and other video-sharing sites. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has generated some 13,000 viewings of his clever “Interview” ads that recap his résumé in an innovative and fun manner. The ads are also playing on broadcast television in early-caucus and -primary states.

The Internet is now so widely used that one could argue it is no longer “new media.” Rather, it has become a staple of campaigns. The race is to see who can make the best, most innovative and most effective use of the medium. Internet consultants have joined virtually every presidential campaign, some in a major strategic role, and everyone is watching to see what “Web 2.0” will bring. The medium is maturing.

The cutting edge this year is in your pocket, your handbag or your backpack. Candidates will be “texting” you this political season, led by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). As pollster Mark Mellman wrote in
these pages yesterday, the number of households using only cell phones has doubled to 12 percent in the past two years.
Two-thirds of us use a cell phone at least part of the time. While that is becoming a problem for pollsters, it is a new opportunity for campaigns. If there were ever an example of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “The medium is the message,” it is the cell phone. Candidates who learn to use them send a clear message that they are part of the future.

Text messaging raises a whole host of issues, ranging from privacy to clutter to costs that users run up, sometimes unknowingly. But it is a way to personalize a campaign, to organize supporters and immediately put your spin on a story.
The movement will grow and the messages will multiply in the coming year. But candidates must be careful they don’t “Hv U LOL.”

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com