Where’s the 2012 Online Campaign

Jon Steinberg looks at the lack of innovation in the Republican field

In the midst of the 2008 US Presidential election, political journalists fell over each other to comment on the remarkable online campaign being run by Barack Obama and his team. Through digital innovation, the campaign mobilised millions of supporters to reach out to potential voters and fundraise. The Obama model was said to be a game-changer that would shift the way communications professionals would reach target audiences forever more.

So four years later, why haven’t we heard more about the online campaign in the emerging 2012 US presidential race? Where is the innovation? Who is storming the netroots? Where are those millions of campaign dollars coming from and why aren’t we being inundated with email blasts, facebook mobilisation and blogger outreach?

Partly the answer is that many of the tactics being used by the Republican primary candidates and Obama’s reelection campaign are the same used in 2008. No candidate would dare launch a major initiative without an accompanying website, YouTube video, facebook post or Tweet. Endorsements of Republican candidates like Rick Perry and Mitt Romney hit Twitter before they hit the front pages – no real news there.

The candidates’ websites span from the mundane to the cookie-cutter approach with the traditional pages for issues, blogs, videos, donations and volunteering pages. Each to varying extents create the pretence of building a community or joining a movement but none of them have created the user generated, decentralised approach to organising their supporters and spreading the campaign’s message that were the hallmarks of the Obama effort.

At the same time, many of the Republican candidates are simply aping the tools developed by the Obama campaign in 2008.

A visit to invites you to take action by launching your own MyMitt account where you can create your own fundraising page and organise on behalf of the former Massachusetts governor. Obama’s 2008 campaign previously blazed this trail through its mybarackobama organising tool created by facebook cofounder Chris Hughes.

Former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney have taken another page from the Obama playbook. They are attempting to use unique iconography to build a larger brand.

The Obama campaign developed and managed its logo in a way that reflected not only the optimism of his campaign message but also the inclusive nature of his campaign. The logo was adapted to target different communities to build engagement and empowerment of the brand.

The Obama logo became so synonymous with his 2008 race that Pepsi faced criticism for copying his logo and message of optimism and change when it rolled out its new brandmark in late 2008.

Most of the Republican candidates have taken a much more traditional route, though both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney have gone a bit further than the typical name and flag motif.

Whether either candidate is able to capture the public’s imagination and drive awareness through this iconography remains an open question. The difficulty both candidates are finding is that building a genuine grassroots movement is about more than imagery and tools.

These campaigns are only effective when they create an open environment in which members can become part of a larger movement. The campaigns have to find ways to allow their supporters to feel real ownership and investment that will allow them to build a movement that changes the national debate and galvanises new supporters to the cause.

This is the challenge and the risk to any campaign, whether it is political or corporate. How do you invite in supporters to participate in a meaningful way without losing control of the brand and message?

There is a balance to be struck but with each risk an organisation takes to invite in supporters, to create meaningful two-way dialogue and allow for debate, the greater the opportunity to build a genuine grassroots movement.

And this is not a lesson that only the Obama campaign or Democrats have learned. The very nature of the Tea Party movement demonstrates how like-minded individuals can come together to build political pressure and momentum around a set of ideas and policies.

While there is no single Tea Party with a central secretariat or political party hierarchy, its members have managed to redefine the politics of the day and influence national policy debates. In part, this is done through genuine engagement with the grassroots, allowing local chapters to mobilise on a local level and embracing the disparate nature of the movement. While other political groups may be more coherent in their approach, few in recent years have generated the media attention or political influence as the Tea Party.

The lessons for any campaign, whether it is political or corporate in nature are clear:

Genuine grassroots support comes from genuine grassroots engagement. By creating authentic dialogue with voters, or consumers, individuals can be mobilised around a single goal and into a movement;

Innovation is key to generating buzz. Until one of the Republican candidates does something new or different, the narrative around the online campaign will remain dry;

The benefits of finding ways to relax the central grip on a campaign’s brand creates huge opportunities to build a lasting movement;

Some of the biggest opportunities come from the unexpected. Creating an open brand and a platform for engagement creates space for outsiders to create extensions of the brand (see Obama Hope poster) that will reach new and unexpected audiences.

Jon Steinberg is an Associate Director at Portland and previously worked in Democratic politics in Washington.