An important product launch took place on Wednesday, 27 December, 2006, in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a small social network. The product: US presidential candidate John Edwards, the former Senator and Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in the 2004 elections. The result of this launch on YouTube.com and the tactics employed may prove not only to be instructive but could also impact the future of how social networking will shape presidential elections in America moving forward.
TIME magazine immediately took note of the Edwards announcement, characterizing it as daring and "… unorthodox." Jeff Pulver, the voice-over-IP communications advocate noted the Edwards launch in his Blog post of 29 December and said:
During my flight back to the States yesterday, a Washington, D.C., policy reporter who was covering the John Edwards YouTube announcement emailed me a request to do an interview. While I would have been happy to talk using Skype at 35,000 feet, everyone around me was sleeping so I was emailed a series of thought-provoking questions.
[Looking back at my replies, they were my immediate reactions to the questions.]
Q1. Do you think more candidates will use online video to get their message out in 2007 and 2008?
A1. Yes. By 2008 every candidate will have to have their TV/IP strategy in place. What we saw today was a foreshowing [sic] of the future.
Q2. Do you think online video will affect the way politicians spend money on TV advertising at all?
A2. In the beginning, no, but it will slowly grow over time. It comes down to what demographic they want to reach. If they are looking for the 59-and-older crowd TV is the only way to go.
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In his final broadcast of 2006, on Friday 29 December, John McLaughlin, the eminence of political reporting and commentary, held his 25th annual "McLaughlin Group" awards on the program of the same name. For Best Idea of 2006, he chose the social networking site YouTube.com. This was notably not coincidental to the launch of the Edwards campaign forty-eight hours earlier.
McLaughlin said that YouTube.com would change the way "... business, politics and journalism are done in this country...."
What do these signposts mean for the business professional? Let us consider the axiom that a presidential candidate in the United States is the ultimate product. If that axiom is true, the John Edwards product launch can be instructive.
Edwards' campaign launch employed six (6) tactics worth our attention.
Each of these contributed to creating the buzz noted by Web Metrics Guru on 29 December. In addition, these tactics clearly targeted the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, which research by the Pew Center for Public Policy notes was instrumental to the Democratic Party victory in the United States midterm elections of 2006. The Edwards tactics were:
- A pre-announcement of the launch on Wednesday, 27 December, featured on YouTube.com exclusively.
- Besides appearances on the mainstream morning television broadcasts on Thursday, the day of his official, mainstream announcement, Edwards made the announcement as a video blog (also known as a "vlog.") His campaign ads, linking directly to the vlog, were featured on various "progressive" Web sites (>Alternet and >Americablog, for example,) that same day.
- Edwards also did a broadcast interview on the popular vlog site >Rocketboom on Thursday. (Andrew Baron, Rocketboom's founder and producer, and its on-air spokesperson, Joanne Colan, assisted the Edwards' campaign in the production of its vlogs.)
- The Edwards campaign, in its call to action during the vlogs, instructed viewers that they could text message the easily remembered term "hope" into their cellular phones to get more information and get involved in his efforts. (SMS, or "short message service," is available on digital phones and other mobile devices.)
- Besides a campaign blog at the >Edwards'08 Web site, the candidate also has a personal blog where he offers vlogged responses to questions from his visitors. He employed this feature to produce Webcasts of his town hall meeting in the state of Iowa at the conclusion of the kick-off week.
- Adroitly, Edwards also invited noted tech blogger Robert Scoble of the >Scobleizer blog to join the campaign entourage in its opening days.
To keep the momentum of the launch going, Edwards' campaign is emphasizing the notion that the social network being created is about taking immediate action. The first "smart mob" event in the works is scheduled for 27 January 2007. The emphasis of the message is individuals not wait until the 2008 election but begin changing circumstances on the ground in the United States immediately.
From a marketing perspective this is an audacious but extremely savvy means of building loyalty and community.
By taking this approach to the so-called "Netroots," the Edwards campaign addresses one of the criticisms raised during the Howard Dean presidential bid: that getting donations on the Internet was not the same as activating voters to do more than sit in front of their computers and talk (or type) about their issues.
Observers in the political arena will certainly be watching to see if Edwards' tactics actually produce real-world results.
A second cause for skepticism, raised by both the Web Metrics Guru post and that of Jeff Pulver, is whether or not part of the campaign's decision to use social media as the primary means of its launch has a good deal to do with economics. The Edwards' campaign is reputedly not particularly well financed.
The campaign faces a daunting challenge in raising funds for a national effort when one considers the competition for donations from well-known, but as yet undeclared, candidates like New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barak Obama.
Nonetheless, for those of us interested in the evolution of social media and their impact on activity in business, politics and the way we live, the Edwards launch provides a wonderful test-case that should generate study and discussion for years to come.
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