Campaign messaging 2.0

Millions of words have been written recently about the innovative use of Internet technologies in political campaigns. Obama, Edwards and Clinton are said to have broken new ground. The French presidential elections expanded horizons with virtual campaigns and candidate avatars. Streaming video, blogs, texting and social networking have all been pronounced the new frontier. But a real revolution in issue advocacy has been largely unnoticed.

Fourteen years ago, my firm launched the campaign that became known as “Harry & Louise” in opposition to President Clinton’s healthcare proposal. At the time the campaign was seen as a daring gamble by many who did not believe using mass media could really impact public policy. Now that campaign is literally part of history and covered in dozens of textbooks. It is also “history” in terms of its technology. The world has changed and issue advocacy has changed with it.

We would never launch an issue advocacy campaign now without building a major Internet component as the foundation of the campaign. The fundamental tool is the website — the one-stop shop for activists, policymakers, the media and coalition building. The better the site, the better the advocacy effort. It should go well beyond such basics as recruiting coalition members, giving them tools to contact policymakers and elected officials, posting new information, showcasing paid media and collecting stories. This is not the Field of Dreams; just because you build it doesn’t mean anyone will come.

You get people to your website primarily with advertising. Web ads can be targeted with much more precision than traditional print or broadcast advertising (although any traditional media ads must have your website prominently featured).

As Mark Twain said, “All generalizations are false, including this one.” With that caveat I would argue that there are generally two kinds of Web ads. One serves primarily to keep a company, organization or an issue in front of your audience. If that is your goal, you are most interested in reaching some specialized eyeballs and are less concerned with the metrics that can be used to fine-tune and increase the effectiveness of an Internet advocacy campaign.

The other general category of online campaigns has the goal of building a large base of supporters, then having your coalition flex its muscles to influence, persuade or pressure for a specific policy goal. That is Harry & Louise 2.0.

Such issue advocacy campaigns should be carefully targeted and closely monitored. A variety of advertising executions can be placed on a wide range of online sites and the creative and the buy monitored and refined to make certain you are getting the highest possible response from each ad. For example, your audience profile may suggest that your most likely activists are very concerned about nutrition issues. It is difficult to buy a list of people who care about nutrition, but you can run ads on sites featuring food, health, active lifestyles and consumer issues. By monitoring which specific ads on which specific sites deliver the best click-through rates to your website, you can maximize your dollars and quickly build a broad-based coalition of people who care about your issue. This ability to carefully monitor responses and adjust the buy gives you a degree of control impossible with mass media.

So, you’ve now built a coalition. What do you do with it? Put it to work. Build buzz around your issue with the use of animation, cartoons, humorous postings, interactive games — anything that creates two-way communication. Web 2.0 is all about creating user-generated information. Information from another coalition member has much more credibility than that posted by a corporation, organization or “expert.” By building entertaining and educating postings on your site you can launch a viral communication campaign that leads to e-mails and postings on other sites.

You can create a campaign personality for your site with an animated character or even a real person to deliver serious, funny, urgent or anecdotal information. That character takes on a virtual life on sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The characters can post content on YouTube, Flikr, Digg and other such sites, even a Wikipedia entry.

The message matters. But in the Web 2.0 age, the messenger sometimes matters even more — in large part because self-selected members of a coalition have more credibility than those selected by traditional means. Those who understand that principle will be the big winners in this new interactive age.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.