Five years ago last month, Sen. George Allen deviated from his standard stump speech to make a demeaning, racial comment to an observer from his opponent's campaign. In a previous election, with no TV cameras present, what happened in Breaks, VA (population: 404) would have stayed in Breaks, VA. But there was a new political tool in town that summer. The clip was was uploaded to YouTube -- a rapidly growing video sharing site with a staggering 100 million views a day -- and the rest is history. Now the word 'macaca' is synonymous with not only Sen. Allen's failed re-election bid, but with the power of online video in politics.
While camera-wielding "trackers" still trail opponents for gotcha moments, political video on YouTube has moved on since macaca. YouTube now enjoys 3 billion views a day, and candidates recognize this is a space where they must compete. More than 90% of Congressional members now have official YouTube channels. Every major 2012 presidential candidate has posted a YouTube announcement. And there is an increasing appetite for this content: according to a Pew study, 31% of adult internet users watched online political videos in the run-up to the 2010 elections - a 63% increase from the previous midterms in 2006.
But politicians could be doing so much more to feed this appetite. They currently create videos that are, dare I say, a little dull. Here in the YouTube Politics team, we see set piece after set piece, mahogany desk and American flag in the corner .... you know the drill. The videos attract tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of views ... but imagine what they could achieve if they followed the lead YouTube stars who regularly attract millions of viewers?
If I may, a little bit of advice for the candidates:
Talk back like Old Spice guy
What makes online video different from television? For a start, it talks back to you. These days, people are used to engaging online. A video, post or story they can't share, comment on, or 'thumbs up' feels dead.
Some politicians are getting the hang of this -- for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hosts a weekly video series answering constituent questions. However, we have yet to see a politician create a genuinely participatory campaign in the way that Old Spice did -- taking that brand from zero to hero in just a couple of weeks. The magic of the Old Spice guy was that he literally spoke back to you -- turning around rapid (and hilarious) responses to viewer questions that people couldn't help but share.
We're not suggesting that wearing a towel and riding a horse is the way to win Iowa, but finding a compelling way to engage with your constituents online is going to win you friends.
Go multi-platform like iJustine
The most successful YouTube channels today are building their audience across many platforms, like Tumblr and Twitter, and driving that traffic to their videos. Popular YouTube Partner iJustine has about as many Twitter followers as YouTube subscribers; she builds buzz for her videos across all her platforms, encouraging people to tune in and share that excitement with their friends.
Following other web conversations can also provide ideas for videos. If you know that a topic is trending on Twitter, you can address it with a video, and then insert yourself into that same conversation with something meaningful to say.
Follow 'the Justin Bieber of politics'
A large part of YouTube's appeal is its authenticity -- vloggers who attract audiences of millions do so by sharing their true selves. While politicians tend to be extremely scripted on YouTube, the most popular political videos tell the real story. Among the most viewed clips are President Obama's White House Correspondents' Dinner remarks, when the President lets his humor shine through, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's regular posts, in which he happily shares videos of random encounters. Christie has earned the moniker 'the Justin Bieber of politics' from Slate for his millions of views.
Stream it out, like Will and Kate
Not feeling the love from the cablers for your event? Cut out the middle man and stream straight to the YouTube audience. Just ask the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who generated 72 million live streams for their "I dos."
Make it easy for us to like you We left the most important advice until last. The most successful YouTube channels are the ones that post awesome videos -- they're well-edited, often funny, occasionally heartfelt and sometimes personal. They provide an opportunity to share a side of you that people don't know. Play hoops? Shoot a video fresh off the court. Make the best fried chicken this side of the Mason-Dixon line? Show off your culinary talents!
So candidates, politicians, staffers -- what are you waiting for? Get out there and surprise us, and the entire YouTube community, with your creativity. We can't promise you'll get votes for your views -- that's your job. But you'll be competing on a level playing field, on which the most engaging candidate, rather than the one with the deepest pockets, can win. Billions of eyeballs are right now looking for the most compelling video to watch -- make sure it's yours, and not your opponent's, that shapes your campaign.
Follow Ramya Raghavan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/citizentube