With the 2008 presidential campaign underway, candidates like McCain, Clinton, Romney, Obama, and Edwards are already dueling for the “best internet campaign” honors.

These articles from the Washington Post, as mainstream as it gets, and Clickz News, an internet marketing online trade pub, provide excellent overviews of the variety of online stratagies and tactics that well-executed and funded political campaigns are employing.

Nonprofits should follow the political internet campaigns closely. There's a lot to learn here on someone else's dime. Here's why.

First, political campaigns' use of the online medium is all about zero-sum, cutthroat marketing … moving the hearts and minds (mostly hearts) of individual people and engaging those individuals in an ongoing, motivating conversation (leading to volunteering, proselytizing, donating and, of course, voting). No luxury here of “long term” brand building or laying the groundwork for a multi-year (decades) crusade for human rights or poverty reduction or global security.

These are roughly two-year-long winner-take-all marketing campaigns with a beginning, middle and end. Individual behavior (i.e., donating, voting) must be influenced or not in that time frame, then game's over. Watch how that affects online engagement tactics … the last thing a political campaign wants is passive viewing. That should be true of nonprofits as well.

Second, most of the political online campaigns will in fact be multi-media. And the smarter campaigns will adroitly blend traditional one-way campaign media — television, radio, direct mail and telemarketing — with the engagement tools offered by the online medium (including mobile media).

Obviously not all campaigns will be smart at how they go about this. Still, lots of lessons to be learned here about message consistency, media planning, cross-platform coordination, multi-purposing of creative work.

Third, political campaigns are all about targeting, and NO medium offers sharper or more dynamic targeting opportunities than the internet. Increasingly shrewd online methods will be used by campaigns to identify and then reach with precision messaging the various constituencies who are most favorably disposed to their candidate.

And the messages will be high impact, more and more using video and live/archived online events. Again, a lot for nonprofit marketers to watch and absorb.

Fourth, no candidate, even the relatively ancient John McCain, wants to be seen as out of touch with younger voters. And these folks of course are the most avid and savvy online users. Hence every campaign will have a sweatshop of smart young internet techies who will try anything and everything to use “old” tools (e.g., cell phones) new ways and penetrate “social networking” realms (MySpace, etc) to make sure their candidate is suitably hip and plugged in.

Your nonprofit might not be targeting under-35 year olds today, but sooner than you think you will need to worry about how to reach these folks to advance your mission. Watch the candidates as they try, and see how they fail or succeed.

Fifth, all the political candidates will try to use the new media (as a catalyst) to influence, even manipulate, the old media (which is still where the vast majority of voters hang out). That's part of the reason for this season's de rigeur campaign launches via YouTube … a way to ensure the mainstream media pick-up a very polished and packaged image of the candidate. If you're the communications or PR person in your nonprofit, watch this fascinating interplay between new and old media unfold over the next two years.

Of course, on the darker side, each and every campaign will pray for its opponent's “macacca moment” … the flub or insult or foot in doodoo captured on video by campaign volunteers (even staff) dispatched for that very purpose. Candidates will inevitably become more guarded and scripted, which is too bad for the democratic process. But still, if you're looking for lessons in ruthless guerilla warfare, this is the phenomenon to watch.

As the articles cited above report, online campaigning is already underway full swing. So get your notebooks out and start learning!

And, come May 18th, a good check-in point might be the Personal Democracy Forum 2007: The Flattening of Politics, which promises an all-star line-up of practitioners and pundits to review the impact of new communications technologies on the political and issue advocacy process.

This article was posted in: Online fundraising and marketing.
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