On Friday, our political marketing arm, Pericles Consulting, exhibited at the Politics Online 2004 conference in D.C., which was put on by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. This represented my first hard look at what the Internet really meant to campaign managers and cause-related marketers outside the New York market.
One of the first things I noticed about this conference was that it wasn't dominated by discussions of ad banners, click through rates and rich media formats. That's the good news. The bad news (for online advertising agencies and media sellers, anyway) is that almost everyone inside the Beltway appears to be completely enamored with the grassroots, community-building aspects of online marketing and precious little else. To political marketers, it is this community-building strength of the online medium that will bring them closer to the success of the Dean campaign, largely achieved through blogs and grassroots organizational tools like Meetup. One conference speaker went so far as to describe online political marketing as having been defined by Trippi's influence. He said history will record political marketing campaigns as having been "BT" (Before Trippi) and "AT" (after Trippi).
Panel discussions at the conference were dominated by dialogue about how to best tap into the political blogging community, mobilizing volunteers and driving donations to campaigns. Many panelists and attendees truly understood what drives the growth of online communities - a willingness to cede control of growth and direction to the participants.
Remember what we used to think "community sites" were in 1997? We thought they were free web hosting portals like Tripod or Geocities. In reality, these types of sites provided only a small portion of what's needed to foster true community. I once had a Geocities site. It existed within a "neighborhood" of other websites that never interacted with one another. If I had to compare that online neighborhood to a real one, each piece of property would have had a 10-foot high stockade fence surrounding it.
Political marketers have latched onto the true meaning of online community. They provide a focal point and tools that empower individuals to not only disseminate their ideas, but to share them and develop them such that the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its parts. They provide ways to cross-pollinate blogs and to make it easy for enthusiasts who support a candidate or cause to take their interests offline and into the real world.
Consumer marketers should have had it this good. Community was never a big selling point for marketers of consumer goods. In the early days of the Internet, marketers cared only about media weight and how many clickthroughs that weight generated. Community-building was usually a distant secondary goal if it was even on a marketer's radar screen. That's one advantage political and cause-related marketers have over consumer marketers in their approach to the online medium. Joe Trippi showed them the power of the grassroots aspect of the Internet, and they've taken the time to fully understand the power of the Internet - the stuff that's beyond plastering it with commercial messages.
Now that political marketers are well on their way to understanding and leveraging the grassroots aspect of the medium, they're starting to look for ways to bring their core messages to the forefront. That's where online advertising comes in. While grassroots efforts can bring an idea or a platform to the forefront over time, many political marketers are seeking out methods for getting their messages to constituents more quickly. But they're going to make sure they rally their supporters first. Keep that in mind if you're pitching a political or cause-related campaign.