Politics is the third rail of the business world; I always find it interesting how people go to great lengths to avoid talking about politics at industry conferences and meet-ups, where the topic is almost as verboten as, say, sex lives and drug habits. On that note, I'd like to issue this disclaimer ahead of time: I think both of our major political parties have failed disgracefully and we'd be better off governed by the cast of Jersey Shore.
However, the current social media push by the Republican party ahead of the upcoming midterm elections in November is interesting from a marketing angle -- both as a savvy example of how to build and consolidate support through branded social forums, and as a cautionary tale of what happens when marketers try to control an ostensibly user-generated movement.
Back in May the GOP launched a site, "America Speaking Out," with the stated goal of soliciting ideas from voters for policies to be pursued by the party, presumably after it takes back the House of Representatives in November, as looks increasingly likely. Users can suggest policies and vote for policies suggested by others. According to ABC, in the four months since it launched, the site has attracted over 100,000 registered users, who have contributed 16,000 policy ideas which have generated 800,000 votes (both for and against). The "winning" policies make up a new document, reminiscent of the 1994 "Contract with America," called the "Pledge to America."
It's a good idea, and the site is very well-crafted, with some subtle touches that help convey the message that "Under the Democratic-led Congress, there has been a growing disconnect between the priorities of the American public and the agenda that is debated in Washington." For example, instead of the usual red, white, and blue color scheme, the site is dominated by muted greens and browns, giving it a decidedly worn and even slightly dirty feel -- but with the sun shining through the background, as if to suggest a new day dawning after years of negligence under the Democrats, who apparently gave up dusting. Visitors can vote for policies in categories including "American Prosperity," "Fiscal Accountability," "American Values," and "National Security."
But as so many marketers have already discovered, launching a social media campaign can be a bit like riding a tiger: it may take you where you want to go, or it may decide to maul and eat you. Sure, it's a great way of getting the word out, mobilizing grass roots support, and helping the consumer/voter become an advocate for the brand. Problems arise, however, when the goals of marketers diverge from the goals of the consumers/voters. At this point the growing chasm between popular sentiment and brand image begins to suggest to users that there was never any real interest in their ideas -- that they were being used in a publicity stunt merely intended to simulate the appearance of public engagement and grassroots support. But the forum still exists -- and plenty of other forums besides -- and now the mechanism created to rally support may actually turn on its creators, all Frankenstein-like (Frankenstein + tigers = bad news).
And it's all too easy for marketers (including political campaign managers) to make this mistake. On the political side, the Tea Party movement notwithstanding, America's two dominant political parties continue to be well-established, entrenched institutions which are unlikely to make any major changes in their policy platforms. Yes, the Tea Party is trying to reform the GOP from outside, with some success, but America Speaking Out seems to be intended to harness some of this energy on behalf of career GOP politicians, according to House GOP spokesman Brendan Buck, who was quoted by ABC as saying: "People have been hungry for an outlet to have their voices heard," especially Tea Party supporters who "felt ignored." It's worth noting that Buck previously worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee, pretty much the definition of a Washington insider group, which now often finds itself at odds with Tea Party favorites, while California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the main force behind the site, refuses to join the Tea Party caucus.
Still, the proof is in the pudding: all that matters is whether the GOP adopts the policies suggested on the site and actually pursues them once in power, right? Well, that's the problem: it turns out some of the most popular ideas were quietly omitted from the Pledge to America, including the second-most-popular entry in the "jobs creation" category, a provision which would "Stop the outsourcing of jobs from America to other countries that do not pay taxes into the U.S. and stop the tax breaks that are given to these companies that are outsourcing."
It's not surprising that the GOP's generally pro-business leadership balked at this populist measure; but it suggests that the social media strategy may have been conceived more as a broadcast-style publicity stunt than an actual interactive forum connecting leaders to voters. Essentially, it seems like the GOP leadership counted on voters naturally, organically generating policy ideas that are already part of the party platform; then the party could claim to be "listening to the people" without having to actually make any uncomfortable revisions. Indeed, an ABC News report included this telling quote from Nick Schaper, the House GOP director of new media: "The idea was to make people feel like they are contributing to the agenda." When things turned out differently, however, they just ignored suggestions which didn't fit with policy positions that were probably agreed behind closed doors a long time ago.
The question, of course, is whether their high-handed disposal of non-conforming ideas will engender a backlash. It's too early to say, but it may be significant that the unwanted policy idea moved from second place to first place in the jobs creation category of America Speaking Out -- after the GOP leadership rejected it.
This is all reminiscent of House GOP leader Jim Boehner's refusal to sign the Tea Party's own Contract From America in April: after aggressively wooing the grassroots movement, Boehner withheld his signature but issued a vague, slightly bizarre statement praising the document for "giving Americans who believe their government is no longer listening to them a platform to come together that transcends party and ideology." Subsequently the GOP unveiled its plans for America Speaking Out and the Pledge to America (again, spearheaded by McCarthy), but one Tea Party leader from Florida was unimpressed: "Now you want us to believe you have seen the light and will prove it with the Commitment to America [later Pledge to America]. No thanks."
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