Roadblock: Experienced Campaign Managers

Television ads, promotional events, the Internet and Web sites are all staples of modern election campaigns—and of product marketing. But tightly scripted, gaffe-phobic campaign managers are learning that effective online efforts—in which managers, staffers and volunteers operate with some degree of autonomy—require some changes in routine. Political and product-marketing pros must learn the art of improvisation and they can’t be reluctant to give away power by pushing out tools to volunteers—not if they want those volunteers to set up meetings with other supporters or to start letter-writing efforts to back their favorite candidate or product.

The Response
Learn the language: Real bloggers read blogs, and real blogs don’t read like a press release. Immediacy of tone, ease of commenting, and a vibrant blogroll (the list of other weblogs linked to a blog) are all defining traits. The original John Edwards campaign blog was dissed by other bloggers for reading like a series of press releases; his staff read the critiques and re-launched a site with easy-to-use comments; a looser, more-conversational writing style; and frequent personal contributions from the candidate and his wife.

Let weblogs be weblogs: A thriving, self-created community of bloggers eager to enlist a formidable challenger to George W. Bush begged Wesley Clark to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. Once the general jumped in, though, his campaign started requiring sign-up forms for support blogs. The resulting tension between the political pros and the grassroots supporters cost Clark some momentum as bloggers spent their energies writing about their disillusionment instead of supporting the candidate.

Go with what you know: The blog is the sizzle; the organizing tools are the steak. Starting out with tools that simplify traditional jobs like letter-writing and local organizing—jobs that can make use of fairly scripted templates from headquarters—is an incremental step that traditionalists should be able to embrace in the online marketing of their candidates.

Understand your own message: By encouraging volunteers to express themselves in letters, on blogs and at unsupervised Meetups, Dean gives up control of the delivery of his message. This makes it imperative that the candidate himself communicate in ways that don’t confuse the conversation. Dean sends the same e-mail to different constituencies, whether it concerns healthcare or foreign policy.