Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blogs' role in political campaigns

Last Saturday, I attended a panel on bloggers and blogging at a seminar put on by Campaigns and Elections magazine in D.C. that raised cusping questions about the role of blogs in electoral political campaigns.

The panelists were the Pew Internet project fellow Michael Cornfield, 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%)
Personal diaries are typically aimed at an audience no greater than 15-25 people. K-blogs are specialized in an issue area -- like Grits, I suppose -- and combine links to in-depth resources with original content. Filter blogs, said Cornfield, combine editorial commentary with links to sources from the MSM and other blogs. They're the ones most likely to link to political campaigns' sites or help spread their messages.

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.
That's all my notes from the presentation, but before the next one (on the FEC's proposed new Internet regulations), I jotted down a few of my own ideas on the role of blogs in campaigns.

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.


Just Powers said...

Some interesting points here...I would also argue that campaign blogs can actually help a candidate formulate opinions on issues that they might not otherwise address.

If a campaign blogger is doing a good job and addressing current events, they will be forced to check in with the campaign before posting about issues that may not be in the list of position papers on the candidate's site.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

As a cautionary note, Mr. Purpuro would probably turn that comment around and warn that blogs can potentially get your campaign off message. Campaigns pick which issues to emphasize using their limited communications resources for strategic reasons, or at least winning ones do. Messages on the blog that aren't backed up by other campaign communications don't help much.

Especially if the candidate her or himself is blogging, or if a staffer's blogging under their name, reacting to daily events in the candidate blog like you describe could potentially cause gotcha problems, with little electoral benefit. If I were advising a candidate, I'd say the blog should be about the campaign, the supporters, and the message, with the goal of reinforcing other campaign communications while communicating campaign information to one's supporters, and personalizing the candidate's image. Even the Howard Dean presidential campaign blog, the most famously successful example, typically blogged about Dean's candidacy, not current events.

I still don't think candidate blogging is a bad idea per se; the question of how to maintain message discipline, though, plus the relevant cost-benefit analyses, are legitimate concerns for a campaign manager or political consultant.

Travis Fell said...

" readership increased 58% in 2004 making it one of the fastest growing media, quickly catching up to the rest of the field."

This is why it's cool being a blogger now. We're learning the pluses/minues of the medium and, in some ways, can help shape their application as the audience increases and the media (blogs, streaming video, podcasting, wiki's, etc.) mature. That is, as media consumptions habits move from the static push model (legacy media like TV, radio, newspaper) to the interactive pull model (wireless devices, podcasting, RSS), people who know how to use the media to draw audience attention and interaction will be in demand. Our many hours of late-night blogging may have a payoff down the road!

"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."

Well, I don't agree with the premise that the MSM enjoys credibility using anonymous sources anymore. Recent scofflaws like CBS's fake Bush memos and Newsweeks spurious Koran abuse stories, continue to drive down MSM trust. That said, it doesn't excuse bloggers from having rigorously researched and documented content. That could be a new media differentiator.

" As video gets cheaper, this will be the ultimate blogger documentary source."

Check out Austin blogger for a good example of integrating streaming video and news content in an interactive forum.

Great post, Grits.

ASPIRIN742 said...

Fantastic info. I'm really glad you passed this along as I have recently set up a new blog just to focus on the political side of my life (family and friends blog is kept separate) and I'm trying to learn all I can about how to make this as effective a tool as I can to help my party win in the next election. Thanks!