Note: Bob Pearson, Chief Technology & Media Officer at WCG, also author of "Pre-Commerce: How Companies and Customers Are Transforming Business Together," joined me in writing the following post.
Verbs have become powerful enough to shape the presidential race. Facebook's latest changes, while not political in nature, are symbolic of how our world is changing.
At its annual F8 developer conference last week, the social-networking pioneer cemented the most influential organizing force in modern political history: the degree to which candidates in next year's election will be required to utilize the full social Web to win the hearts and minds of voters.
To be clear, there was no official mention of 2012 or any one political campaign at last week's conference. However, the move by CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make Facebook far more social through features that support "real-time serendipity," the notion that spur-of-the-moment discovery and sharing shapes online experiences, is set to redefine how candidates interact with voters. The clock is ticking and the learning curve has never been steeper.
Consider the following: in 2008, Barack Obama amassed more than 100,000 Twitter followers by election day. In 2012, there will be more than 240 million Americans online. To remain competitive, presidential candidates will need to add a few zeros to previous numbers, in terms of fans, friends, subscribers and followers.
50 million will soon be the new normal.
While the Internet has been a political tool for more than a decade, it wasn't until Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's Democratic primary campaign in 2004 that its power to organize and activate became readily apparent. Largely driven by traditional Websites and blogs, the standard four-part "ask" was simple: come, join, donate and vote.
Eight years later, a vastly different set of verbs will define which candidate(s) drive the most share of conversation online. And the stakes have never been higher.
First, while still a box to be checked, the campaign Website is quickly becoming obsolete. By 2016, it will be as obsolete as the fax machine is today, as pages on social networking sites quickly take over. Traditional websites will simply be storage closets for approved content.
In a "word" or "verb" election, the individual word is as important as the message. Keywords lead us to the right places where we can "like," "subscribe," "recommend," "Tweet," or "friend." They lead us to our favorite community sites where we hang out. This is what matters.
Today's candidate needs to build their SocialCloud that shares content across the 10 channels of online (video to audio to blogs and more).
Candidates expand their supporter networks far faster and more effectively by embracing the vision that Facebook, Google, salesforce.com and many others have built. Those who neglect specific "asks" of their supporters, particularly the need to tap into the full power of social networks, will find themselves at a clear disadvantage when it comes to fundraising, building supporter communities, shaping conversations and, above all, earning votes.
Second, the explosion of content -- Tweets, news stories, status updates, videos, photos, podcasts, likes, dislikes, etc. -- will require that candidates at all levels become far more participatory and prescriptive. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in 2005 only 8 percent of online U.S. adults were using social networking sites. Today 65 percent use them. Said another way, the four key drivers of news flow today are the Facebook Wall, blogs, Twitter and mainstream media.
In an increasingly interconnected media environment, never has it been more important to help supporters share and navigate basic content. In 2008, signing up supporters for an e-mail list signified a tactical win. In 2012, tailoring a speech or message to encourage supporters to "share" a blog post or favorable op-ed will become commonplace to ensure that campaigns stay ahead of the content game. When this happens, a post from a highly influential supporter becomes just as useful and important as a front-page story in the New York Times, especially if it's actively re-Tweeted.
Finally, those who choose to ignore the social Web will not just be left behind, but will be vastly outnumbered by those who embrace it. The ailing economy, Mideast conflict, market uncertainty and overall dissatisfaction with Washington, all in the midst of the social media revolution, are laying the groundwork for a highly polarized and vocal electorate. Unlike 2008, the opportunities to weigh in with one's opinion or frustration are far greater. This will require that candidates reassess their approach and replace a "boots on the ground" strategy with "fingers on a keyboard" mindset.
Far too often, Washington falls behind the eight ball when it comes to technology adoption. 2012 will be different. Gone are the days when launching a Website and joining a social network was enough. The nation's first "verb" election will require much more. Americans will soon demonstrate what this means.
Sean Donahue is Senior Vice President of The Herald Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs and strategic communications firm. Bob Pearson, Chief Technology Officer & Media Officer of WCG, is the author of "Pre-Commerce: How Companies and Customers are Transforming Business Together."