With the nascent '12 presidential campaign officially underway, we've already seen some relatively innovative early uses of social media to draw attention to the early contenders. Pawlenty and Trump are on Twitter. Zuck & Barack met at Facebook HQ last week for a livestreamed town hall.
With all of this progress elsewhere, why are web campaign videos still so downright awful?
Let's take Mitt Romney, for example. Remember his awesome campaign launch video?
Yeah, neither do I. For the sake of this article, however, here's a chance to watch it again:
Romney is 64 -- yes, 64 -- years old. This guy was practically made for high-definition. And yet, something is distinctly unsettling about the video.
The eerily empty stadium backdrop looks like it was lifted from the set of a made-for-TV Stephen King adaptation. And as if the scripted speech didn't seem artificial enough, Romney peers off-camera every few words to catch up with the teleprompter. On the perceived authenticity scale, that puts him somewhere between a QVC announcer and, well, a politician. Not good.
Instead of this somewhat creepy, manufactured enthusiasm, why can't we have candidates who use web video to speak to us in languages other than soundbites?
Video (on television, at least) was once considered the cutting-edge frontier of campaigning. The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate has been etched into history textbooks as a watershed moment in electoral history. The story, by now, is familiar: radio listeners concluded Nixon had handily won the debate, while the TV audience favored Kennedy's cool, calm appearance to Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow and beads of sweat. Needless to say, Nixon found himself out of work in a few months time.
Will Election 2012 be the watershed moment for web-based video?
Hopefully. But given what's out there so far, there's a lot of work to be done. And so, to the nascent '12 candidates, I encourage -- I urge you -- do something new with your video.
How so, you might ask?
1. For once, show us the human being behind the candidate.
Internet audiences loathe the manufactured sound-bites that you've regurgitated on everything from Hannity to NPR. Ditch the teleprompter and the fancy backdrop. Instead, have a campaign aide whip out an iPhone on the campaign bus and tell us about your childhood, your family, your favorite episode of Seinfeld. You'll have plenty of time to tout your official platform during the official debates. In a world where social networks are dominant, web video is your chance to get us to "Like" you in a highly visible way.
2. Use online video as a medium for real conversations, not one-way speeches
It's 2011: most of us have figured out by now that your intern is running your Twitter feed and Facebook page. But a one-minute video response to an actual voter's question? Not only is that much harder to fake, but it also sends a strong signal that you are actually listening to voter concerns. On a side note, don't fill your Youtube channel with every last one of your cable news appearances. It's unnecessarily redundant.
3. Good lighting and audio are essential.
Don't be afraid, however, to sacrifice a bit of production value if the trade off is more authentic or organic content. Most viral videos, after all, are produced for practically nothing. But if we can't hear you or can't see you, we won't bother to continue watching.
4. Don't put us to sleep.
In this era of AHDD and multitasking, expect most viewers to lose interest in your video by the one-minute mark. Don't even think about putting out a 5 or 10 minute-long segment unless the material is extremely interesting or engaging. If people want long and boring, they'll turn to C-SPAN.
5. Take risks.
Short of unleashing a drunken tirade of racial slurs, try something new and exciting with your video. Stage improptu livestreams from your kitchen. Post video responses to random Youtube parkour videos and see how long it takes for people to catch on. It's still early enough that you can be a pioneer in online campaign video. The bar is set very, very low. Believe me.
6. Give your youngest staff member the final say over your videos before they are posted. Note: if your youngest staff member is over 30, you will not win the 2012 presidential election.
Memo to the campaign staff: Need some inspiration? Look to local politics; there, the candidates often don't have the money to spend on lavish TV ads, so you might just find simple ingenuity.
Bryan Weaver, an under-the-radar candidate for the D.C. city council, has utilized web video in a way that I (and many others) have found unique and endearing. His videos pay homage to one of the true pioneers of campaign video, the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, whose early '90s TV ads have now earned a second life on Youtube as sensations of their own.
November, 2012, may feel like a long way off, but if history is any guide, it'll be here in no time. It's time for campaigns to start crafting the web video campaigns that -- with any luck -- will someday earn a permanent place in the annals of electoral history.