When I was working for Howard Dean, and the campaign was riding high, we took a lot of delight at other campaigns falling over themselves to copy us. One memory I'm particularly fond of is when our "bat" caught on, tracking our donations online, within a week we saw other campaigns come out with a "hammer" and a "boot" and anything else they could think up. It was as if, hey, if we just put up the same thing as Howard Dean, we'll have the same success.
And so it is with the online announcements of 2008. I don't talk to any of the Presidential teams out there, so it's very possible Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Richardson had all independently planned on announcing online. Circumstantially, though, it sure seems like once Barack Obama did it, there was a mini-rush to do the same thing. It's as if Hillary and Richardson 's campaigns saw the news Obama got for his nontraditional announcement - some calling him the first internet candidate - and wanted a slice of that action.
Here's the secret, though. First, the online community isn't a monolith. You're not going to win them all. You probably won't even win a majority of them. So stop thinking in terms of how can I "win" the Internet. You won't.
Second, it takes a hell of a lot more than announcing online to prove yourself to many in the Internet community, and can just as easily be done by some other means of announcing. All the candidates who announced on the web need to recognize that, or they'll end up looking just as silly as the campaigns that put boots and hammers on their own websites to get more money.
Yes, there are some benefits to announcing online:
- First, you can control when the news gets out. If you have a pre-taped announcement, you can scrap running it if the news cycle looks unfavorable, ensuring that you're the only news of the day.
- Second, it drives people to your website. In this day and age, email addresses are almost as big a commodity as campaign cash. So, making people go to your site to hear your announcement is a good way to help boost your list of "supporters."
- Third, you control the message and aren't at the whim of the news filters (e.g., writers, editors, producers). People will hear what you want them to hear, not what fits best into the 5 second clip set aside for you on the news.
But there are some very real disadvantages, which I think outweigh the plusses.
- Number one, giving an online speech might not play to your strong suit. If you sound like you're reading a statement, and it's not from the heart, you look phony. Not a great way to introduce yourself to the nation as the newest contender for President.
- Second, though escaping the news filter, you're not escaping the "ding filter." That's a new term I just coined, by the way. So, Contessa Brewer, if you want to use that on MSNBC, you better let me take you out on a date. Anyway, the point is, most people don't have much of an attention span at the computer for anything longer than a minute, especially when it comes to video. There are IM windows that pop up, new email that comes in, and probably in there, somewhere, some actual work to be done. In short, every time your computer "dings" for your attention, you're not paying attention to - or have to turn off - a web announcement. That's a hell of a lot of competition for a candidate.
- Finally, and most importantly, if you don't back up your online announcement with some core talk that resonates with the online community, you're going to look like a Pander Bear, to use the old Tsongas-ism. The online community is an especially shrewd and cynical bunch, and won't react very well to a candidate who thinks a web video without substance is enough to convince netizens to sign on.
When Barack Obama announced on the web, it made sense. His website announcement played to his strength - his youth and vitality. It was novel. Because it was merely the announcement of the exploratory committee, he reserved the right to keep it very brief, and reiterate that he'd have much more in his formal announcement for President. His speech was 3 minutes, but still well fleshed out, whereas Hillary's was crammed with individual issues that I'm sure pollsters told her she had to mention. Because Obama was the first candidate to do so, his web announcement made some news for him, and surely drove up traffic. Obama, though, cannot think that this makes him the 'internet candidate,' because it does not. He needs to show a lot more in the coming weeks and months.
Hillary Clinton looked too "me too" in her announcement. In some ways, you can't dispute the results - some 100 new people signing up per minute, her campaign says - but image-wise, is this what she really wanted? My gut tells me that her largest obstacle is being seen as not as genuine as her husband, and reading a teleprompted statement doesn't seem to solve it. Hillary could have made a much more positive impact if she went back to her listening-tour roots, and announced she was running while having a conversation with five average people about their problems, at a small table in rural America . In this way, she's still announcing in an unconventional, news-worthy way, while enforcing the notion that she too can "feel your pain."
As far as Bill Richardson, after Hillary and Obama, his online announcement was just tired. It really is a shame, because he has a ton to offer, and deserved a lot more attention. His strength is his leadership both as Governor and on the world stage. Him sitting in a suit, awkwardly, and reading an announcement online neither played to his strength, nor won him news. If I was advising him, I may have set his announcement in a faux-state house setting. Set up a rostrum with the House and Senate leaders behind him, and state legislators cheering him on from the front. It highlights his leadership position and plays very nicely with the State of the Union coming up. Whereas Hillary and Obama looked like they were delivering the Democratic response, Richardson could have looked like a President.
The bottom line is none of the candidates should become so obsessed with impressing those who go online that they forget themselves. Gaining the attention many Internet political watchers, and their admiration, isn't going to come because you do things online first and often. It'll come if you're genuine, prove you understand their concerns, and advocate a vision for America that they can latch on to. The number one rule to remember regarding net-users is we're not any different than anyone else.