If you think text messaging is driving your your cell phone costs too high, just thank your stars you didn’t get Barack Obama’s bill for $290,000 in text messages.
That’s what the Democratic candidate for U.S. president shelled out to directly inform supporters he had selected Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate.
It was “the single largest mobile marketing event in the U.S. to date,” according to provider Nielson Mobile, which charged 10 cents per text message sent. That means 2.9 million signed up to receive what could be regarded as one of most historic text messages ever delivered.
The massive audience response was possible because of the draw of Obama’s Web site.
More than 280,000 people have created accounts on the site’s “MyBo” action center. Those members have used the online tools to create 6,500 volunteer groups and organize 13,000 real-world events in support of the campaign. They can also submit opinions and information on policy issues over the site – 15,000 ideas having been submitted so far, according to the site.
It was by allowing such a large Web audience to easily sign up to receive the text message that the Obama campaign was able to directly tell supporters about the decision, unfiltered by any traditional media. Such action has been the trademark of the Democrats’ campaign to date – direct communication with supporters enabled by technology, mainly the Internet.
McCain’s Web site has some similar tools, including a social network dubbed “McCain Space”, but the site has failed to gain the same sort of traction as Obama’s.
The proof is in the numbers.
On Web traffic-tracking site Alexa, BrackObama.com ranks 535 and JohnMcCain.com 4,497 out of all Web pages, as of Aug. 29. That stark contrast wasn’t heigtened by the timing of the Democratic convention – over the past several months, Obama’s site has ranked an average of 7,000 positions higher than his opponent’s site.
Perhaps the personal connection of the candidate to their Web sites explains the difference. Users of Obama’s site are made to feel they are in direct communication with the presidential candidate, with personal messages from him regularly posted to the blog, and his tech-savvy well known – having often been spotted thumbing a BlackBerry on the trail.
But no one can really believe they are communicating directly with McCain on his Web site. In a video now widely shared across the Internet, McCain responds to a question over whether he prefers a Mac or PC with this response: “Neither. I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all the assistance I can get.”
Obama’s superior tech prowess, as compared to his opponent, is reminiscent of an electoral contest that was held a year before the Illinois senator was born.
In 1960, a young Democratic senator was also taking on an older, more experience Republican opponent that had been part of the establishment – vice-president, in fact.
It was John F. Kennedy’s understanding of television – a medium of new importance to election politics – that many say helped him defeat Richard Nixon.
Nearly 70 million Americans tuned in to what was the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history. Kennedy understood the importance of presentation on TV – he appeared tanned, relaxed and brimming with confidence.
He was juxtaposed by Nixon, who did not grasp the criticality of looking good on screen. Recently released from hospital after knee surgery, Nixon looked pale and gaunt and refused to wear make-up to improve his colouring. The results of the debate speak for themselves – those watching on TV overwhelmingly considered Kennedy the winner, while those listening on radio considered it a close debate with Nixon edging out his opponent.
Fast-forward to 2008 and there’s yet another new medium that will once again change the way presidential campaigns are mounted. Those following the race via the Internet are no doubt convinced that Obama is running away with this race, while those looking to traditional media may view it as a dead heat.
On Facebook, Obama has collected more than 1 million supporters. McCain has one-fifth that amount. Obama’s fantastic Facebook showing is perhaps aided by Facebook co-founder Chris Hugues leaving the social networking company, joining the Democratic campaign and designing the social networking tools for www.barackobama.com.
In terms of fund raising, Obama used his Web site to raise $55 million in February, a record for any presidential nominee and double what McCain raised in the same month.
Total fundraising estimates to date also have Obama doubling McCain’s funds.
The junior senator has enjoyed such success with his Internet fundraising machine that he’s flip-flopped on a pledge to “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publically financed general election,” and instead choosing to go it on his own.
He’s turning down more than $84.1 million in public funding in making that call, but some experts project Obama could raise close to $1 billion by the time the November vote rolls around.
But the real difference Obama’s Internet campaign is making is best demonstrated on the popular link aggregator Web site Digg.
Users of the Web site vote on what pages on the Internet are most-worth viewing, and the site has dedicated a section to covering the 2008 elections.
Popular stories about Obama on the site cast him in a positive light – a tough and tech-savvy representative of change. Meanwhile, popular stories about McCain cast the Republican candidate in a much more negative image – a person ignorant about important issues.
Here’s some example headlines about Obama from the front page: “Obama: I’m ready to face John McCain” and “Barack Obama: The American Promise.”
Now contrast those with headlines about McCain: “Incredible! McCain’s Prickly TIME Interview,” and “McCain Campaign: There are no uninsured-Wow!”
In the end, Obama’s Internet focused campaign hasn’t been merely a convenient method to drive his message home – it has been part and parcel of his message and the way he envisions democracy should work in the 21st century.
Using the Internet to communicate directly with anyone who cares to listen shows his campaign’s deep understanding of the “YouTube generation” and the result is normally apathetic young people are engaged in the political process.
Using the Internet has helped Obama conduct a campaign with a different message that has resonated well with many Americans. That message is one he spelled out for his supporters while formally accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in Denver last Thursday night.
“This campaign has never been about me,” he told 85,000 fans packed into an open-air football stadium. “It’s about you.”
Which Canadian parties are tech-savvy?
With a Canadian election looking like it could occur even before the Americans head to the polls, is there a political party that holds an advantage in waging a campaign over the Internet? A look at the three national parties currently in the House of Commons Web sites hints at who will be the most Obama-esque.
The Conservative Party’s Web site home page is well-equipped. There is a link to play videos in a small player placed in the upper right-hand corner, links to hear the audio of the latest radio ads, and icon-links to some Web 2.0 features. For example, jump directly to the Conservatives’ YouTube channel, choose from a selection of RSS feeds, or look at Stephen Harper’s Facebook politician profile (about 10,000 supporters).
The Conservative’s “myCampaign” feature allows users to sign-up, but isn’t really a social network tool. It’s more of a way to create a list of supporter information. But users will be able to access some action features like writing a letter to the editor, recruiting a friend, calling talk radio, sending an e-card or fundraising.
The site also offers up a podcast and a videocast. But the last podcast update was May 29, and the last videocast was May 28.
The Liberal Party’s Web site has few Web 2.0 features, focusing mostly on conveying a lot of static information on their Web site. There is indeed a lot of in-depth information on the issues and Liberal policies. There’s also a “Liberal TV” section under the multimedia tab, featuring a surprisingly high-quality and responsive custom video player and recent videos. But the podcast section is misleading. It offers up three different channel options – radio ads, Dion speeches, or free Liberal radio – but all of the channels are empty.
The “take action” tab reveals the standard options that you’d expect. You can contact a Liberal party member, reach out to a friend with a message, sign up to volunteer or donate. The Liberals, like the Conservatives, have recognized their inability to fundraise at the grassroots level, and launched victoryfund.ca to try and make up some ground. The tool enables supporters to decide how much money they want to give the Liberals on a monthly basis.
The New Democratic Party shows a clear understanding of what their supporters need to help campaign via personal Web sites, blogs and social networking accounts. A big focus on the site’s multimedia section is to provide the embed code that will open up the flood gates for NDP campaign materials.
Bloggers using Google Blogger or WordPress are given access to ready-to-use blog templates that feature the NDP’s trademark orange colour, a video feed, and other key messaging links back to the NDP Web site. Or if supporters want a simpler approach to showing their support, they can use the NDP’s embedded video feed, or simpler yet, graphical buttons declaring support.
The party has also set up a Web 2.0-ish mini-site for upcoming Sept. 8 by-elections. But the site features much of the same content that’s on the main Web page, with just more of a focus on the four NDP candidates vying for seats in parliament. The “Take Action” features are limited to receiving an e-newsletter, putting a sign on your yard, signing up to volunteer, sending an e-card to a friend, or donating money.
But the campaign does come with a slick social networking application. Deployed as a Facebook application, the Unite4Change feature allows users to view video, and send unique NDP-branded gifts to friends.
The NDP has a good presence on Facebook. Its campaign against the recent move by Bell Canada and Telus to start charging for incoming text messages has attracted over 37,000 members.