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The GOP Online

For some time now, I have been bemoaning the complacency of the GOP when it comes to its online efforts. Rob Bluey and David All have joined me recently with posts on the same topic. Patrick Ruffini jumped into the debate last night with a different take. While I am not intending this as a critique of Patrick’s post, there are a couple of points where we disagree.

The basic gist of the argument is that because Democrats embrace open systems online (blog comments, user generated content), they’re more successful and raise more money. This totally gets it backwards, I think. It assumes people go to Barack Obama or John Edwards’ sites because of the allure of creating their own personal space there, or at least to check out other people.

For my part, this isn’t at all what I’ve been trying to say. I have pointed to the difference between McCainSpace and Obama, or to open blogs versus something like Tancredo’s merely to reflect the difference in choices made with regard to the Internet. Democrats generally pursue open systems online, Republicans don’t. This isn’t simply a question of blog comments. This is everything from blog comments to social networking to the way their e-mails are written.

Ruffini makes the argument that the Democrats get more media attention and therefore they’re going to get more Internet attention.

If Democrats are covered more often, it’s no surprise that they will be searched for more often, and their sites will get more traffic. In addition, I’m also willing to concede that Democrat primary voters may be more willing to engage in odd numbered years. Does this mean Republicans are congenitally incapable of going online? Hardly. At this point, the gap results from external factors in the offline world, and the numbers can easily skew one way because comparatively few people are tuned in.

This is really sort of a chicken and the egg argument, however. Do they get more attention because they get more media? Or do they get more media becuase they’re getting more attention? I argue it’s the latter and you can see it very clearly in other things going on online. Case in point, the Vote Different video was stirring things up online long before the first MSM outlet said a word. Granted, once they did say something, MSM drove even more people to the video, but it had been percolating for quite some time.

This is true of just about anything covered by the media. Almost every story that breaks in the media originated online. Stories drive buzz before they drive media. Buzz exists long before the media takes notice. That’s where the GOP is falling down. The GOP is about advertising, the Democrats are about marketing – and there is a serious and significant difference. I fundamentally believe that word of mouth marketing now drives the vast majority of our culture – from which movies we watch to what cars we drive and which candidates we elect. The Internet is the focal point of word of mouth marketing in the world, and the Republicans don’t get that.

The GOP talks about the Influentials as new-found disciples of Keller and Berry. The GOP has been promoting the concept for years – longer even than Keller and Berry. The difference is the way they have altered the meaning. They previously used the word “opinion leaders” to describe pastors, business owners, elected officials, and those in high positions that can sway people. They’re the same people the GOP sees as influentials today. They fundamentally miss the concept.

Word of Mouth Marketing

To really understand where the GOP is falling down, you need to step back and look at word of mouth marketing conceptually. Let’s take me as an example.

Since Mrs. Quip and I had Little Quip, we don’t get out to the movies often. Prior to the little man’s arrival, though, I would see a movie at least once, usually more like two or three times a week. I love movies. As a result, I read about them constantly. Who is directing which film? Who has been cast in what role? When will movies be released and to how many screens? It all fascinates me. As a result, I consume a lot of information about movie production and often devolve into discussions of films with friends. Much of my excitement for movies that have not yet been shot, let alone released, is passed on to those same friends.

When I talk to friends about movies of which they may have heard nothing, I don’t tell them what the producers or the studios want me to say, I tell them what I think. I tell them I find it appalling that they’re plucking Puss in Boots from the Shrek movies and making it a spin-off. Since my kids will likely be of cartoon age when it is released in 2010, I will likely be forced to see it, though I will hate every minute.

If I had a choice between two vehicles to spread that message – let’s say talking to friends at parties, versus a movie website that only allowed me to send preformatted messages telling everyone that I thought Puss in Boots was the greatest movie idea since Bambi – I would opt for the one that allows me to talk openly, and share what I really think.

It is a difference between sender-receiver models and empowerment. It doesn’t matter if I am saying what you want me to say about your movie, as long as I am talking about your movie. That’s marketing in a word of mouth era. When it comes to ideas the GOP has convinced itself that the old adage “even bad press is good press” is wrong. They believe that only positive coverage of your ideas is a good thing. It’s just not true.

That is what the Democrats understand.

If I heard from 10 friends that they were excited about a new movie, and thought it was going to be the next big thing, and I heard from 10 other friends that the same movie was going to suck eggs and would likely go straight to video, I’d be curious to learn more. I’d read about it. I’d look at who is in it, who is directing, and who wrote the script. I might decide the latter group is right and it looks like the next Ishtar (which I actually liked, but bear with me). I might not ever see it. But I would take a look.

There are even more people who, hearing about the movie, would take a look and decide to spend their $10. Hopefully that group is larger than the group of people who decide not to. That’s the market. Allowing people to share ideas – good or bad – and spread information – also good or bad – is what enables people to form opinions. Giving them a website that does not allow a dissenting voice and even squelches supporters for using the wrong semantics is ridiculous in a competitive marketplace of ideas.

Marketing & Public Perception

People, for the most part, don’t speak in catch phrases and the latest marketing buzz words. I don’t buy laundry detergent based on ads that show some frustrated mother getting a grass stain out of her kid’s clothes. I buy laundry detergent based on whether it gets my clothes clean, the cost, and whether the dyes and perfumes might irritate the skin.

People buy candidates the same way.

John Kerry’s race was not, despite contrary opinion, the result of the Swift Boat Vets, or the President, or the GOP in general. Kerry’s problem was, simply, John Kerry. He came across as an oaf. When he spoke, he tried to have everything both ways. He was for it and against it. The President didn’t make him say that, he did it on his own. The Swift Boat Vets simply exploited that fact that he was against the Vietnam War, but in favor of being a war hero in it. He was for being insanely wealthy and running on his wife’s money, but against other people having that opportunity.

Kerry’s marketing, regardless of list size, dollars raised, debate performance, etc, could not withstand the onslaught of public perception. If people have doubts about you to begin with, the advertising merely adds to that. If people think you’re a tool, they’ll believe advertising that tells them you are.

Control Versus Direction

Howard Dean, unlike Kerry, was simply a victim of a poor organization. As Zack Exley acknowledged (and Patrick pointed out) the Dean campaign was, for better or worse, still a political campaign and still relied on “top-down” communications to deliver marching orders. The marching orders, however, were poorly conceived. Trucking strangers into town then dressing them in day-glo orange hats so they stand out is not the best strategy. The “Dean Scream” was the result of coming in third in a primary he was favored to win. That has nothing to do with open or closed systems. That has to do with not reading the landscape correctly.

There is, without a doubt, a place for direction in campaigns. Direction, however, is not the same as control. Republicans don’t get that. I’m not sure why the GOP has more than its share of control freaks, but we do. We, as a party, tend to believe that everything can be scripted and micromanaged, and ignore every thing in nature that demonstrates otherwise.

E-mail As A Mover

Patrick raises a lot of very serious points, but I quibble with what I read to be a dismissal of traffic variations. I don’t agree that traffic differences flatten over time. Even when Bush was running ahead in the polls coming out of the Democrat debate, we were still running behind Kerry in traffic. If campaign trends mirror traffic patterns, that should not have been the case.

I also disagree with Ruffini about e-mail as the killer app and what I think is a dismissal of the distinct difference between the quality of names versus the quantity of names. An effective e-mail program is an important piece of any good Internet mix, but it is not the most important.

To Patrick’s e-mail point, I agree. If you are trying to get a large number of people to do something for you, the number of people you can reach via e-mail versus the traffic camped on, or possibly looking at your site is usually a better option – though this ignores a few key points.

First, e-mail has limitations. Let’s say you have a list of 1 million people. If you send a message to them, you may get an open rate (on a house file) of 40%. That means 400,000 will open the message. The number who will click through to your page is much smaller (let’s say, for sake of generosity, that 40% holds constant as a drop, though it usually doesn’t). Your one million e-mails mean 400k opens, 160k click-throughs, and assuming a simple one step action, 64k possible respondents. (The real numbers, however, are likely to be much less optimistic than this projection).

Second, how do you attract and retain a list and keep response rates high? Let’s assume Patrick is right (which I think he is) on this:

[W]hen we‚Äôre talking about raising money and generating email addresses, the subject of this discussion, your strategy is totally different… [S]upporters are far more likely to interface with the campaign from a top-down email sent from headquarters than they are by having a peer-to-peer dialogue with the campaign. Blogs and email serve two entirely different purposes. Blogs generate buzz and influence the influentials; emails generate mass action. If you want to look at the success of any campaign in terms of transactions, look first at their (boring, stodgy, etc.) outbound email program.

And once you get into talking about email, as Zack says, “It’s just a numbers thing.” The growth of your list is the result of a formula that combines traffic to your site and the techniques you’re using to get them to give their email address. This part of it isn’t about lightning in a bottle, or about “getting it.” It’s a math equation than anybody can solve.

Even if I buy the argument that a strategy for raising money and growing your list is fundamentally different from the strategy to grow and retain your site’s traffic, I still disagree with the characterization of this as a math formula anyone can solve. I just do not find it realistic. If online success were a function of mathematics, then everyone would be successful.

The Numbers Game

Growing your list – in terms of sheer numbers – may be a matter of mathematics. For (a) dollars you can buy (b) impressions or click-throughs and for every (c) click-throughs or impressions you get (d) registrations. You can then assume that for every (d) registered users (e) will give money or otherwise act when asked. Patrick is right in that, but that’s also a strictly numbers based system.

It doesn’t recognize two things. First, there is a finite pool of potential supporters, and an even smaller pool that will give you time or money. The law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly – especially in online politics. You can buy 40 million impressions at a $25 CPM and you break even on the million dollars you spent. Spend another million and maybe you still break even, but your margin is smaller. The third million is smaller yet. You can’t keep throwing more money at the effort and have it pay consistent dividends – that’s just not in line with the laws of economics.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t acknowledge the people behind the numbers. It’s the difference between how Accounting sees you and how HR sees you.

How Do You Treat Your Volunteers

The people on your list, for better or worse, are simply volunteers. Volunteers agree to sit stuffing mail or making calls for long periods of time in cramped warehouses because they believe in a cause. If you respect that, and give them music, food, drinks, discussion etc, they are more likely to come back. I have spent enough time eating pizza and chicken with volunteers stamping indicia on direct mail to know this is a fact.

Your online operation, if you look at it solely as a numbers game, is the equivalent of inviting these volunteers to come work for you, sticking them in dim lighting with no music, no food, and no drinks. You’re telling them to show up and work or you’ll just run your formula and find more volunteers. Unfortunately, that assumes that the pool of potential volunteers is infinite and you can continue to recruit more no matter how poorly you treated the last group.

That same logic has been rejected by most successful businesses. It is much easier to retain a good employee with a marginal outlay of additional benefits than it is to recruit a new one. Google has phenomenal retention and a great public image because they treat their people well. They understand that people are not merely a numbers proposition.

Quality V. Quantity

What makes you successful online is not how many e-mails you can amass, but the quality of the people in the list.

I know for a fact that this is true in the GOP because the biggest list in the business is also one of the poorest performing. It’s a dirty little secret that sits out in plain view. If e-mail is the critical mover, when the Bush campaign turned its list of 6 million e-mails and aimed them squarely at the FEC in the spring of 2004, the inflow of e-mail should have crushed the FEC’s e-mail servers, right? Look at the bottom of this blog post quoting Ralph Reed, and you’ll see a number that is wildly inaccurate, but still telling.

Bush has 471K volunteers, 6 million emails, organizing block parties. Republicans sending emails to invite people to other people’s party as sending the mail from the person – think Evite. 6MM unique views of Bush commercials on the web site.
Asked for Grassroots campaign to comment on FEC 527 rules. They generated 627K comments to the FEC. (emphasis mine)

The number, as reported correctly in other places, was actually about 67k, not 627k. Barely more than one person in 1000 clicked through and sent an e-mail. If everything is numbers based, and top-down is good, then those numbers just don’t add up.

What Makes Success, Then?

Your success online is a combination of many factors. You need a big list, but when people get your message you want them to act. You can’t bombard them with fluff, and expect them to keep reading. Every single message can’t drive them to a website where their only possible action is clicking the button the campaign shows them to send the message the campaign wrote to the recipient the campaign thinks is important.

You absolutely want them to take that action, but what reasons are you giving them to stick around after they do? Are you allowing them to interact with other people? Are you allowing them to create their own blog? If they’re already taking one action, and obviously in the mood to act, are you giving them other opportunities? Can they register to vote? Can they ask a friend to get registered? Can you identify and ask them to contact unregistered neighbors? Those activities, that interaction, is the free pizza, Cokes and music with which you feed your volunteers.

Volunteers want to feel like they matter. Reducing it to a math problem ignores the humanity of the numbers.

Patrick isn’t advocating a strictly top-down model. Much of the GOP does. Much of the party is whistling past the graveyard.

I sat through more than a few meetings on the campaign and at the RNC and listened to people fret that the Democrats are raising huge sums of cash, and building a massive Internet infrastructure. “Why aren’t we able to do that?” they ask. If it were simply a function of throwing more money at building a bigger list, why hasn’t that worked so far? The GOP has thrown millions at the Internet.

At the same time the Republicans stress that they are falling behind, they decry and deny the things that make the two sides distinctly different. Many Republicans discount the level of involvement users have in social-networked Democrat sites, and then question why their model of command and control doesn’t generate the same loyalty. If everything else remains constant (the mechanics of making a contribution, donating your time, or getting involved) and the only apparent difference is in your recruiting strategy, you may need to rethink your strategy.

Written by Michael Turk