Commentary

Grassroots Politics for a New Generation: What Can We Learn From the Primary Elections?

This year marks a new era for voters. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton defied most political forecasters with unanticipated wins in early primary elections. An estimated 200,000 new voters came out for Obama in Iowa, while Clinton supporters in New Hampshire refused to accept the pronouncement that her campaign was dead and delivered a win with 10% more votes than pollsters predicted.

"What happened?" was on everyone's minds. The short answer is that people participated in the democratic process. Voters didn't base their decisions solely on political advertisements or media endorsements. They interacted with the political "brand," if you will, and its messages, and told their own stories on relevant issues. The "surprise wins" happened, in other words, because voters forged connections with candidates that are both personal and meaningful, and in the process they became advocates to friends, family, and coworkers.

In such a tight political race, imagine how much Barack Obama's campaign manager would pay to magically give a pen and paper to a television viewer every time they wanted to jot down a note. Or how valuable a billboard would be to Hillary Clinton if the message displayed could automatically be sent to friends and family's mobile phones and email accounts. Then envision the value of being able to follow up with voters who demonstrated a proven interest in the campaign.

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Political candidates had access to comparable tools to engage voters online and encourage word of mouth, but they didn't use them. There are a variety of ways to empower brand advocates (however broadly defined) with the ability to share content:

• RSS feeds;

• Widgets for MySpace and blogs;

• Facebook applications; and

• Online calendars.

These types of tools empower users to forward to friends, set reminders by email and SMS, and even create live video chats through Web sites--all of which capture contacts and can feed data into a CRM to enable retargeted messages.

A basic understanding of social media and how communities form online would have shown campaign strategists that traditional media buying doesn't translate well in the interactive space, and it is not enough for a brand to simply build a Web site with the hope people will find it by search, or clicking on a banner ad. People love being brand advocates--especially when they are online. The most active influencers on the Internet thrive on introducing new threads into existing conversations that contribute relevant insights and opinions to their peers.

Discussions about whether this will be the first election decided online are secondary to the more fundamental point that campaign strategists missed significant opportunities to empower voters to move brand messages to permanent places in their lives and those of friends and family. Instead of giving tools that could enhance their online experience by enabling one-click content-sharing and contact opt-ins, candidates expected voters to seek out information with the hope that they might tell others.

Let's not get caught up with industry language of "conventional" and "emerging" media because for most people going online, like watching television or reading a magazine, is just part of their daily lives. There are 3.5 billion brand-related conversations per day in the U.S., according to a recent survey by the Keller Fay Group. Whether they occur in online communities or across email, in the locker rooms or the workplace, brands need to do whatever they can to empower interested audiences with every means necessary to participate in those conversations.

Kartzman is the president and co-founder of Spongecell. He provides the strategic direction for the company and is also responsible for sales and marketing of Spongecell. Kartzman can be reached at ben@spongecell.com.

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