As I read this Washington Post piece by Jose Antonio Vargas about political activism on social network Facebook.com, I had a good feeling inside. Reading a story about the power of social networks used to empower the historically disenfranchised youth vote gave me hope that social networks truly represent an evolution in interpersonal communication, and are not simply a hedonistic haven for online dating, gossip and monetizable page views.
In reality, the Internet itself is THE social network, and what we call social networks today are, in fact, an increased layer of functionality, aka Internet 2.0 (this distinction is a subject for a future Spin). As the adoption of Internet 1.0 changed the rules of information exchange and business communication, Internet 2.0 will rewrite the rules of interpersonal communication and community. This has the potential for the Internet to finally cause that societal sea change in an order of magnitude equal to the proliferation of televisions.
And like the medium of television did before it, Internet 2.0 will forever change the face of politics... eventually. As the use of social networks grows across every demographic grouping, their role in shaping the future of our government will increase exponentially. At current rates, significant social network adoption outside of the youth group will occur even prior to the 2008 elections. But is this round of hype about social networks changing the political landscape a portent of the sea change to come, or it just another case of "Snakes on a Plane"?
Anyone who reads pretty much any media publication heard about the viral/social/user-generated/virtual-buzz/Web 2.0/new media marketing phenomenon that was "Snakes on a Plane." But, when it was time for all of that hype to translate to real-world action (in this case, getting people to see a movie about snakes on a plane), the results did not match the hype. That was because there still has not been a rule established regarding online hype translating into real-world results. This is one reason why performance marketing is the current norm online; if I can't predict online buzz translating to real-world results, then I'll put dollars into online marketing that generates online results. But what this means is that, unless Obama supporters are going to be casting their vote by clicking on a contextual text link -- "If you like _______, then you should vote Obama! Click here to vote!" -- then Obama's campaign has a little less than a year to uncover the Rosetta Stone that translates online buzz into real-world action, or risk turning Obama's huge lead in online buzz into nothing more than an election day result as disappointing as 'Snakes'" opening box-office draw. Here's a partial cipher (listen up, brands, it can work for your viral marketing, too):
Monitoring/facilitating the tone of the conversation: If you want an online movement to result in real-world momentum, the messaging is the key. It's not hard to spread virally, or create communities, if you play to the publics' lowest common denominator. Meaning, you can build buzz by allowing the slicing and sound biting of your content to degrade it to a laughing matter (à la "Snakes"), or a politician's superficial "rock star" image; but the lowest common denominator method doesn't create action outside of the virtual world. That "Snakes" was a funny clip to send to hundreds of people, doesn't mean I would take a night and pay $10 to see the movie. There needs to be some level of willingness for campaigns (or brands) to sacrifice greater online viral spread or community growth to raise the conversation to levels that will motivate people to act in the real world.
Maintain an online and offline balance: If you want the virtual buzz to result in real-world action some day, don't just leave your online supports to their own devices. Virtual communication is easy; melding that with events in the real world is much harder. If you want people online to feel a real-world connection to your cause, meet them there. The logistics may be difficult, but the Internet (and social networking in particular) is a great event management tool. There's a lot of talk of integrated marketing between media, but there are no two media that need it more than real world and virtual in order to be effective.
Hands off facilitation and support: Don't force a message. Don't ever have anything other than full disclosure of content that you have created, or a staffer has created, or a comment a staffer posts, or a comment that a cousin of a staffer posts. People will know you have motivations behind the content you create, but there will be ways that people will want to share the content you create, that make sharing easy. Facilitate communities, through social network apps, so that those who might be real-world influencers, but not technically savvy, can do their thing for you. Provide the soapbox and then let others talk.
Targeting real-world influence: In traditional politics, there is a knowledge base of those who actually can bring votes, and who is talk only -- and you learn quickly who these people are online. Not everyone who can build a community around a rallying call can influence that community to act in the real world. There are ways to test this before election (or product launch) day arrives, and you might want to try a couple.
These are only a couple of broad rules in an online world, with no black and white. You have to find the right mix of each that works for your message. Some Internet 2.0 community infrastructure might already exist, and you can just access that community within the rules laid out (sorry, each community has its own, no secret sauce here); other communities you might have to build from scratch. Remember, enable the virtual and real-world balance and then be a PART of the conversation.