Political Theater and Unlikely Pairings Take Stage at Politics Online Conference
When a record-breaking number of people from across the political spectrum converged last Friday at Washington, D.C.'s George Washington University for the 11th Politics Online Conference, a squabble or two was anticipated. But who knew that a sponsor's poster would become the center of contention?
As recounted by conference attendees interviewed for this story, during a session, a panelist grabbed a poster for event sponsor VideoBanner, and evidently used the poster as a tangible representation of what politics online should not be about: advertising. The panelist was Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup.com, an online service that facilitates the in-person gatherings that became a driving force behind Howard Dean's primary campaign. According to some present at the session, Heiferman argued that the true purpose of the Web in politics is to build community, not run ads.
"I think people enjoyed the fire from it," observes Matthew Zablud, conference manager of the event, which was hosted by the University's Graduate School of Political Management's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (IPDI). "But," he concludes, "the popularity of the marketing track did not wane following Scott Heiferman's efforts." Heiferman did not respond to multiple calls made by MediaPost before press time.
While the incident was a minor footnote, it sheds light on a major theme that emerged from the conference: the clash of politics, free-form community building, and controlled commercialization on the Web. Indeed, a debate over the pros and cons of centralization and control of Internet political campaigns proved especially popular--and was extended by half an hour, according to Zablud.
"What struck me the most," comments panelist Jarvis Coffin, president and CEO of specialty content ad network Burst! Media, "were the parallels between the political advertiser mentality and the consumer advertiser mentality.... Both are highly reluctant to embrace the bottom-up quality of the Web."
The term "bottom-up" was a mantra throughout a luncheon keynote address given by former Dean for America campaign manager Joe Trippi. During his speech, he cautioned that for Washington and the consumer industry "to believe it's immune to the bottom-up power of the Internet is a huge mistake."
The Dean campaign was a launching point for many panel discussions at the event. Not only has the Web's impact on that campaign fueled an increased interest in the medium among politicos; it may have helped propel conference attendance--which, at over 400, more than doubled last year's. "It reflects a post-Dean sensibility," suggests Carol Darr, director of IPDI. "Politicians no longer see the Internet as just fancy bells and whistles that they can adopt or not adopt."
Michael Bassik, VP of Internet advertising at political communications firm Malchow Schlackman Hoppey & Cooper, doesn't disregard the impact of these less commercial outlets such as blogs and meeting services. However, he insists: "It's important that online advertising not be overlooked." Bassik compares the relatively small number of Web users who visit blogs (about 11% of Internet users, according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report, or around 14 million people) to the 111 million people who voted in the 2000 election (as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau). He asserts: "Web sites and blogs and meet-ups are great ways to meet the converted, the press, and opposition researchers; but they won't be deciding factors."
Also speaking during the jam-packed luncheon keynote address, which was broadcast on C-SPAN, Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign manager Ken Mehlman was another who likened online political campaigning to consumer marketing. "A good Web campaign is one that does not overly solicit or overly contact," he emphasized, "but instead engages individuals the way a good business would engage a customer through multiple contacts on multiple issues."
By the end of the day, attendees were able to put aside their differences regarding the true purpose of the Web in politics. Of course, a libation or two at the conference cocktail party probably assisted in the peace process. In fact, it may have eased a post-party dinner coupling among presumed foes. Marvels conference manager Zablud: "The Kerry people met with the folks from RightMarch.com for dinner afterward."
Who knew they served crow in D.C.?