Youth and the Web: The Political Campaign Game-Changer

It’s hard to dismiss the role of the Internet in this year’s elections. Both political parties are using online strategies to an extent never seen before in a political campaign. From daily candidate blogs with updates on issues, to made-for-YouTube commercials, to the use of technologies such as SMS (short message service) to announce vice presidential selections, to — perhaps most discussed — the use of online tools for fundraising, the Internet has become a dominant force in this election.

In fact, young voters in particular have come to expect that they can gather information about candidates and issues online, and a failure by candidates to address this expectation may negatively impact their campaigns and their fundraising.

Results of a recent election survey indicate that while TV ads are still considered the most effective way to reach voters, e-mail and Web sites are now ranked higher than phone or radio campaigns. Furthermore, among young voters (18 to 24 years old) less than 5 percent say that direct mail is effective. (Visit the E-Voter Institute for more information.) Meanwhile, a recent survey indicated that a full 36 percent of quiz takers didn’t watch presidential candidates’ acceptance speeches on TV during the recent conventions.

Drawing Them In

However, while the Web is an excellent mechanism for reaching voters, in order to convert observers into voters, candidates will need to fully embrace new media along with tried and true marketing and advertising techniques. For example, rather than focusing solely on display ads and e-mail marketing campaigns, candidates should include social media networks, online polls, videos and blogs to ensure that those who are interacting with a campaign on the Web today convert into voters (and those who influence voters) tomorrow.

Why are these mechanisms so effective with youth voters? Because “engagement” is king president. Engagement is critical for garnering attention and support whether it is for a product, an advertisement or a political campaign. What do we mean by “engagement?” It is an active participation in and interaction with whatever is taking place — in this case, the political process — including the ability to learn about key issues, participate in a dialog about these issues, provide feedback and believe that that feedback is being heard and having an impact. Candidates who fully embrace the Web can turn their monologue with voters into a true dialog with their constituents and achieve that coveted direct connection. Of course, they should take great care as a dialog goes both ways — candidates have to be willing to actually listen and not just speak, and ignoring the fact that they are in a dialog can be disastrous.

This is not a new concept: An engaged audience has always been the goal of any marketer –including those marketing presidential candidates. What is different, however, is how people are being engaged and the level of engagement that individuals, particularly the young, are demanding. Not surprisingly, it is the Internet and its unprecedented ability to educate, facilitate communication, and inspire that is driving this engagement.

Lessons For (and From) Online Advertisers

Online campaign strategies are not without their risks and pitfalls, and a savvy Internet campaign manager understands that the “rules of engagement” are just as important as the engagement itself.

Taking a page from the online marketing manager’s book, it’s important to keep in mind that heavy handed, in-your-face strategies don’t work — best case, voters ignore these; worst case, they create a negative perception of the candidate that uses them. For example, annoying and aggressive ads are likely to be ignored and can damage a voter’s impression of a candidate. The rapidity with which a ranting viral video or slam can spread online has no offline counterpart. Hell hath no fury like an angry Internet user.

Additionally, the dialog must be open, which means criticism as well as praise is accepted, shared and remains visible. While some posts or comments on a social networking site or blog may be inappropriate and must be removed for safety reasons or because they are not in the spirit of an open dialog, censorship as a whole is not recommended. The challenge for the political marketer, then, is to influence and manage the conversation so it is a constructive dialog that shows the candidate in the best possible light. Savvy consumer product companies also understand that their best option is to read reviews of their products, particularly the negative ones, and use this information to improve future versions, change their marketing messages, or correct misinformation.

Interactive technologies afford important opportunities to engage, solicit opinions and involve individuals in the process — which is very effective. Quizzes, surveys and polls are some of the most effective strategies for soliciting and assessing opinions, both of voters and of “consumers.” Whether gathering opinions on careers, products or candidates, surveys are an effective way to engage audiences.

Cultivating a sense of community is also helpful. People return for more information and invite others to join the conversation. This is the closest to “control” that political campaigners can get in this age of easy access to information (and misinformation) and seamless borders.

Meanwhile, peer influence, particularly among young voters, is important. Youths in general are much more likely to be influenced by the opinions of others, particularly in their cohorts. Sites that support and allow for peer interaction and discussion are an important forum for reaching young voters and young consumers. Additionally, candidates demonstrate that they “get” the Web and new technology, and therefore, by association, they “get” young voters who are tech savvy.

Be Prepared

Lead times are short, and trying to keep “news” under wraps is almost impossible. With so many bloggers and such easy access to information, it is extremely difficult to keep secrets in a virtual world. Whether it is regarding product defects or candidate personality traits, marketers are better off being prepared with a proactive, thoughtful responses than moving into “denial” mode.

In addition, “containment” no longer works. It seems that nothing is sacred, and intimate details about candidates’ personal lives, private e-mail accounts, etc., are all likely to be leaked — like it or not, fair or not. So, per the “open dialog” mantra above, the question becomes, how does the candidate or the marketer share and engage the audience in a conversation about pertinent issues, and how can the candidate put the news (positive or negative) in the best possible, most favorable light? Chance favors the prepared marketer.

Multiple sites, multiple technologies, multiple advertising mediums — people are getting their information online, but that means a lot of things. It means major news and information sites; it means major portals. In addition, it means social networking sites, polling and survey sites, e-mails, Internet-enabled mobile phones, and accompanying technologies such as Twitter and text messaging. Then there are the traditional marketing mediums — TV, radio, newspapers, billboards, magazines, telephone, etc. Candidates and marketers must integrate many — if not all — of these to effectively reach their audience(s). While young voters are more likely to be online and receive their information online, this does not mean there is not a place for more traditional advertising mediums — both to reach this audience and to reach other audiences.

This election season is exciting not only because of the issues being discussed and the backgrounds of the candidates participating, but also because of the way that technology is transforming the entire election process. The importance of technology and the Internet in this election heralds what is actually a new, more populist era in domestic politics — one in which the individual is more deeply involved in the political process and the political process is increasingly exposed to the individual.

Seth Lieberman is CEO of Pangea Media, a casual entertainment and online advertising company.

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