The Pew Internet Project has released Election 2006 Online, a thorough study of Americans' use of the internet in the recent elections.

While this report deals specifically with the internet as a source of political campaign news and as a vehicle for engaging with the elections, the patterns it reveals are important for all cause marketers as well.

The report indeed makes clear that an important and growing segment of the American public is turning to the internet as its primary vehicle for election-related engagement. But you should have no doubt that the same behaviors will apply to “politics” writ large … the whole spectrum of activities related to mobilizing citizens around issues, causes, and public affairs.

That said, looking at the Pew data closely, it is still important to keep the political internet boom in perspective. There's a tsunami on the way, all right, and you had better be mastering the medium right now if you operate in the political arena. But the big wave is still way out on the horizon.

To build a prime segment they call “campaign internet users,” accounting for 31% of all adult Americans, Pew included appropriate respondents to a number of questions. The “easiest” qualifier was saying “Yes” to this: “Did you get any news or information about the November elections on the internet or through email?” Not exactly a high bar if you ask me!

So, while many of these “campaign internet users” (less than one-in-three of all American voting age adults, mind you) reported that they used the medium to gather information on candidates' positions (51%), check accuracy of claims made (41%), or watch campaign-related video clips (32%), fewer actually engaged by signing up for campaign emails (9%) or contributing money (5%).

Similarly, 23% of “campaign internet users” (or 7% of American adults) did one or more of the following:

    • posted their own political commentary to a blog, website, etc.
    • forwarded or posted someone else's political commentary
    • created political audio or video recordings
    • forwarded or posted someone else's political audio or video recording

Among ALL respondents, only 15% named the internet as one of two sources where they got most election information. Even for the “campaign internet users,” TV and newspaper still rule the day as sources of political info.

Now that I've sounded this “don't sell your TVs and postage meters” note, let me repeat … The Wave IS Coming!

If your primary constituency is ANY of these — under 36 years old, college educated, earning $75,000+, or connected via broadband — Pew data says they are probably using the online medium as a primary tool for political involvement now. If they have ALL of those characteristics, and a sizable chunk of Americans do, they are definitely digesting their politics online. Even if only, as the Pew data suggests, as a matter of convenience … they want their information (political or otherwise, whether traditional or new media outlets) when they want it, and in the depth they want it.

Pew points to three likely drivers of more intensive use of the internet in the 2006 election cycle.

#1 is increasing broadband penetration (i.e., “always on,” fast … people use more).

#2 they opine is the growing internet savvy of the public (66% of Americans now have six or more years of internet experience … they know how to use the beast).

Neither of those drivers is going to reverse.

#3 is the particular interest and excitement the 2006 elections held, with possible changes in congressional control at stake. Certainly the “passion” driver won't reverse either, at least in 2008.

Read the report … it's really important stuff if you're a cause advocate or fundraiser. Just keep things in perspective … and know your audience.

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