The panelists were the Pew Internet project fellow Michael Cornfield, Redstate.org creator Michael Krempasky, and Larry Purpuro, who creates campaign websites for Rightclick Strategies.
Here's a few things I learned there Grits readers might find interesting:
Cornfield cited a Pew study estimating that 16% of US adults are presently blog readers. That's not so much -- after all, campaigns need 50% + 1 voters to win elections -- but blog readership increased 58% in 2004 making it one of the fastest growing media, quickly catching up to the rest of the field. Blog readers already constitute the equivalent of 20% of the total newspaper audience and 40% of the talk radio audience, Cornfield said.
In a recent study, Pew identified three general types of blogs:
- Personal diaries (75% of blogs)
- Filter blogs (15-20%)
- K-blogs or Knowledge blogs (3-5%)
Krempasky revealed one of the dirty secrets about campaign websites: Traffic on most of them stinks. Blogs do better than websites on Google and other search engines and draw more traffic to the site, said Krempasky. (Oklahoma Democratic Senate candidate Brad Carson's campaign blog last year drew about 80% of his website's traffic.) All three panelists emphasized that blogs were an ideal attack medium for releasing negative information about an opponent without getting the campaign's hands dirty. In many cases, this can be done informally without any explicit arrangement when bloggers are among your core supporters.
I agreed with many of Purpuro's comments to the effect that right now, blogging for many political campaigns may be putting the cart before the horse. Campaigns, he noted, are about resource management: money, time, communications. Today every campaign must have a website. Blogs may be the future, but in the current environment they are still optional in a way that a website is not. Getting the campaign website right, he said, is much more important.
A campaign website isn't just measured by traffic, he said. Its more important function is as an outbound platform, a generator and content provider for email lists, plus a source of positive, self-congratulatory profile material for the media and persuadable voters. The website should be a "marketplace for ideas," he said, but most campaigns are not getting it right. Given the payback from blogging, especially in small races, Purpuro persuasively argued blogging should be well down a campaign's priority list.
Krempasky had a great idea for candidate blogging in small campaigns. He thought that a candidate who was blockwalking door to door should take along a digital camera. They could take pictures of potholes, nuisances, the candidate with people they meet going door to door, and use the pictures along with some minimalist commentary to create a very personable blog that would let voters feel like they were right there alongside the candidate in the neighborhoods. I think that'd be a really cool idea, and a great way to connect with voters in a small district.
Cornfield argued that blog ads are so cheap campaigns would be foolish not to purchase them. I'm sure in Texas you could advertise everywhere possible in the blogosphere for a few hundred bucks. (Grits doesn't presently accept advertising.) Blogs consciously think of themselves as communities, he noted, so when somebody like Kos decides to fundraise for candidates, that sends a signal to other like-minded community members that they should follow suit. Don't expect big money, he said, but at least spend the money on blog ads on blogs covering your district, he advised, so as not to leave money on the table.
A questioner asked how to create "blog bait," i.e., what content will attract bloggers. The panelists came up with several suggestions:
- Blog posts are personal: All blog posts have some editorial comment, even if it's just one word or a symbol like a smiley face indicating sarcasm.
- Sex (still) sells: There's a reason Wonkette appears on more magazine covers than Kos.
- In-depth coverage of scandals in the making: Often in the beginning the media won't latch on as quick as your blogger supporters.
- Humor: Jib-Jab would have to be the best example of blogger-friendly political humor.
- Documentary evidence: Most important, since bloggers suffer from a credibility gap and must document their material to get the same credibility their MSM counterparts enjoy using anonymous sources. As video gets cheaper, this will be the ultimate blogger documentary source.
1. Great attack medium. Because they do well on Google and other search engines, blogs are ideal for delivering negative attacks in local campaigns because a blog with significant links actually has a higher search engine ranking than a low-traffic local campaign website, especially one that's just started up. If ten local bloggers link to a funny post about a city council candidate, most campaigns won't ever figure out how to boost their Google ranking above the attack before the end of the election.
2. Blogs create a personalized image, whereas on most websites candidates appear as cardboard cutouts. I was especially interested in the idea of a candidate taking a digital camera blockwalking as a way to generate that personalized feel to a blog, or even a website. Since most blockwalking candidates at the end of the day shoot out an email saying who they talked to and downloading intelligence or information they garnered that day, it's not a great leap for a candidate or staffer to take that information, remove anything of strategic import, and turn those daily summaries and photos into blog posts. That'd be a cool idea for city council candidates, for example. And putting constituents pictures on your website is a great way to get them to come look at it! Most otherwise wouldn't.
3. Blogs are for elites. The low-traffic nature of most blogs is misleading because blogs are for opinion leaders, especially so-called "K-blogs," but even political "filter blogs." In the Dean campaign, the media, core volunteers, and donors were the folks who were tracking the campaign via the blog, but for them, it provided instant access and an instant feedback loop. Those people are elites, not the masses, and for campaigns smaller than presidential ones a blog typically won't generate high traffic. But those who do traffic the site are folks you want to be communicating with, like the media, opinion leaders, donors and volunteers, because they can help you. That said, the emphasis in the case studies on national campaigns and blogs skews perceptions about what smaller campaigns and regional bloggers might expect. Few local campaigns will draw many commenters or significant traffic, and for them Purpuro's advice about weighing time and resources seems especially wise.
4. Blogs are a media strategy, not an activist medium. Email is a better tool for campaigns to mobilize donors, volunteers and voters. Blogs are best at personalizing your candidate's image, making a connection with your core supporters, and, especially for issue campaigns, influencing the terms of debate. At the national level, Josh Marshall's work on social security is a fine example of the latter. Enlisting his readers' help to do more than he ever could alone, Talking Points Memo filled many of the gaps in that debate that the MSM otherwise would have ignored. But TPM can't generate nearly the voluneer or financial resources that a group like MoveOn can with a large email list. That's because email is a form of interruption marketing, which is better at spurring your target to act. Blogs are a passive medium that gives the reader more control, and therefore more options not to do whatever activism the organizer wants.
Don't get me wrong for a moment, I'm a great fan of blogs and a proponent of their power to change the political landscape. One reason I launched Grits was I hoped to alter the terms of debate regarding Texas' criminal justice system, an issue area which has historically been skewed toward irrational "tough on crime" themes that today are increasingly obsolete. Without overstating the case, I think this blog in a small way has helped do that. I've been gratified when, as happened a few times, legislators or other influentials have said Grits contributed to a shift in their thinking. But whatever small influence this blog enjoys lies mainly in its ability to help win the argument, not because all my myriad readers might tomorrow storm the Governor's mansion in protest of his egregious vetoes. That's why I say blogs aren't an activism strategy, even though I consider myself an activist -- they're a communications strategy. To get the most out of them, IMO, campaigns must treat them that way and avoid confusing blogs' role.