"And if we don't get it together, Barack Obama is going to be ripping us a new one for eight years." - Gary Emineth, South Dakota head of the GOP when talking about the need for the Republican party to exploit social media.
First, let me start by saying that I'm not loyally aligned with any particular political party (I'm registered Republican, but I often vote across party lines), and that this post is not truly about politics, governmental policy or partisan issues... it's about Marketing. Social Marketing to be more specific, and how some politicians just don't get it. And I'll also preface the rest of this article with the fact that I do not know Ken Blackwell, have not researched him (beyond what I've read in the papers), and have nothing personal against him. (I actually still have a letter signed by him when I created my first LLC in Ohio and he was the Ohio Secretary of State.) He's simply the unfortunate principle figure in the article I just read...
What triggered my need to write this blog is this article about the Republican Party debates on January 5th in Washington D.C. to determine who would head up the Republican National Party as the elected chairman. One of the front-runners is Ohio's own Kenneth Blackwell, who was formerly Ohio's Secretary of State and two years ago was soundly defeated by Ted Strickland in the race to be Ohio's governor.
During the debate for the RNC chariman post, which apparently turned into a middle school-esque argument over who had the most contacts in social network tools, Mr. Blackwell repeatedly mentioned that he has "over 4,000 friends on Facebook" in his debate answers--apparently in an effort to demonstrate that he is tech savvy and can appeal to a new wave of younger Republicans. With his statements in the debate, Mr. Blackwell is truly saying two things by bragging about how many friends and followers he has in Facebook and Twitter:
1) He at least is aware that there is a powerful media outlet out there called 'social media'
2) Unfortunately, if he thinks the number of friends you have is important, then he does not understand how to use it.
A political campaign is, at its core, a marketing campaign all about trying to win over the hearts of voters (consumers). Convince enough voters (consumers) that you and your platform (brand) are the best for them, and they will vote for you (purchase your product) on election day.
Political candidates are realizing, much like brand managers for consumer products, that the wave of social networking and digital media bring tremendous opportunities to reach more voters. However, the real value of social networking tools (and internet marketing) in general is not only in the additional reach, but the fact that internet marketing and social media enable the creation of dialogue with the voter/consumer... the opportunity to have a conversation with the voter/consumer about their needs, expectations, and how the candidate/brand can deliver on these needs and expectations.
Whereas the traditional media (TV, radio, print) reach a ton of folks, this type of advertising is purely 1-directional communication--like someone with a bullhorn talking in one-direction to the masses. No opportunities to get engagement back from the masses, and there's a good chance that a passerby'er may "hear" your monologue, but is actually not "listening".
Social media outlets (like blogs, micro-blogging sites like Twitter, and social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace) enable a "virtual dialogue" to occur between the candidate/brand and the voter/consumer. A conversation can develop, a relationship can be built into loyalty--and all on the voter/consumer's own time. This "own time" aspect is vitally important, as it actually ensures that the communication is wanted and when the voter/consumer is most receptive to having that discussion, and therefore, the quality of the engagement is much, much stronger. If these tools are used effectively, the candidate/brand is able to quickly develop the consumer's awareness, understanding, and--eventually--trust in what the brand promises to deliver, and you have a consumer for life!
So, this takes me back to Mr. Blackwell. He knows that social networking media is up-and-coming, and potentially very powerful. But by focusing on the virtual reach he has (indicated by his # of friends), he's not demonstrating that he understands the power of these these tools. I think it's great that he's got 4,000+ friends in Facebook--but all that means is that there are 4,000 people who he either asked to be his Friend or that he accepted as a Friend. My co-worker has over 5,000 friends in Facebook--but he doesn't use Facebook to build more relationships or dialogue...he's what I call a "Facebook friend-collector".
When I checked out Mr. Blackwell's profile (we're both members of the Cincinnati network, so I can view his profile), I see a bunch of posts from others writing on his wall--wanting to engage in dialogue with the candidate but not getting responses. The only posts put up by Mr. Blackwell are photo albums of photo-op events he's recently participated in, or his 'plan' for the Republican party--a .pdf download. This screams of old-school, monologue marketing (dare I also mention that he is robo-calling voters--in other words using that annoying automated phone call with his voice recording to get folks to vote for him...say it ain't so Ken!). Not much public engagement with folks who post on his wall, no effort to understand what his 4,000 'friends' want to see in the Republican party's leadership. For all I know, Mr. Blackwell is a "Facebook friend collector" as well.
To show that Mr. Blackwell truly understood the power of social networking technology, he should have responded more to the tune of "I use Facebook and Twitter daily to further nurture relationships with voters and engage folks with my vision of the future of the Republican party. I love that these social media tools have given me yet another effective outlet to create conversations with our citizens.", instead of his 'I have over 4,000 friends in Facebook' answer.
As politicians go, one only has to look at Barack Obama to see how to effectively use social media to market oneself in a campaign. He truly deserves the AdAge's 2008 marketer of the year award he just received, as he leveraged new media to extents not seen in political campaigns in the past. He Twittered, Facebooked, and Blackberry'd his personal message consistently for 12 months, using each medium to create conversations with voters like never seen before. He even had the savvy to get a free iPhone application placed out in the iTunes app store. The iPhone was little more than a way to present his platform while also asking for help in getting him elected by enabling iPhone users to make calls on his behalf to their own contacts living in key swing states. Talk about engaging the voter... I nearly made some phone calls to buddies in Florida on Obama's behalf just because of that iPhone application. Definitely beats robo-calling.
So, while Obama used social media to get to the White House, Blackwell makes robocalls and brags about the his number of Facebook friends... sigh. Now, I will say that I know that Mr. Blackwell Twitters frequently (or someone on his staff does it for him), so I truly believe that Mr. Blackwell understands the power of of these tools and is creating those dialogues with citizens. But he does an injustice to the external perception that Republicans' are slow to understand and use technology when he does nothing more than brag about how many friends and Twitter followers he has in a public forum like this recent debate.
For social networking tools, similar to other "things", the old adage rings true: "it's not the size (of your friend list) that matters, but rather how you use it."
Addendum on 1/8/09: related article from The Daily Beast