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A Case Study in “Letting Go”: Eventful/Edwards and Columbus, KY

BY Alex Hunsucker | Wednesday, September 26 2007

After months of hard work, I am happy to announce that John Edwards will be visiting Columbus, Kentucky on October 4th. In case you didn’t know, John Edwards agreed to visit the town that demanded him the most over a thirty-day period this summer on Eventful. Yesterday’s front page of Wired featured an excellent article that gives the background of the competition better than I ever could.

First, I want to say most credit for the success of the competition goes to the insightfulness of Ryan Alexander and Amy Rubin who saw the value in this competition at the Edwards campaign. But, there is no way to value the vision, hard work, and determination of Shawn Dixon who rallied all of western Kentucky to demand a visit from Edwards.

I’m clearly happy with the results of the competition, but it's important to step back and determine whether the Edwards visit to Columbus even matters, and if so, why? At the very least, it’s an interesting case study in the burgeoning association between the Internet and politics—an example of how a web-based platform can enable grassroots mobilization on a large scale. Below I give my initial thoughts and analysis.

A third party platform enabled engagement by people other than core campaign supporters

The competition was held on Eventful, a third-party website, unaffiliated with and independent of the John Edwards campaign. While it is true that many participants were referred to Eventful from, most participants came from his social networking pages, non-campaign affiliated sites, and outside media sources, without having to donate, sign up, or swear allegiance to Edwards—allowing for greater participation from casual voters and undecideds.

For example, the town of Columbus has voted overwhelmingly for Bush in the last two elections. Nonetheless, Dixon managed to convince every one of them that demanding Edwards on Eventful was good for their community. I believe this would have been a much tougher sell if they were directed to participate on the campaign website instead of a non-partisan platform. Now, Edwards has been given an opportunity to persuade those voters in person—an opportunity he never had before this competition.

Web tools allowed catalysts to show support in their own way and spread the word

The competition allowed passionate Edwards supporters to support the campaign on their own terms. Yes, campaign websites are a great place to get people to open their wallets, but there are others who want to do much more than donate. This competition afforded a great deal of freedom to people like Dixon and Shane Brinton (who led Eureka, CA to the second place spot), people who saw an opportunity to put their neglected towns on the map. The competition allowed them to use their own savvy to reach out to their communities, using email, socnet tools, and their own blogs, which are unavailable in the closed environment of a campaign website.

A democratic process provided more incentive to participate

The most important reason this was a success is that the Edwards campaign gave up control. To date, nearly every content-driven movement on the web has had a veiled layer of campaign regulation or review process. The Edwards/Eventful competition, however, was completely democratic. It was a no strings attached, unbiased, democratic process. The incentive to participate in a competition where all votes are equal is much higher than knowing your submission is going through a review process or selection committee.

I think the components above merged to create what those who fostered this idea hoped for—driven individuals using grassroots Internet tools to take advantage of a rare opportunity, transferring online activism to real world events. The results: Shawn Dixon and Columbus, Kentucky, pop. 229, beating every city in America to get their first ever visit from a presidential candidate.

Obviously the Edwards event has gained the most media attention. But, in reality, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in events associated with or discovered on Eventful in this election cycle. Larger campaigns, like Obama and McCain, are using Eventful to notify their supporters about upcoming events in their town and increase turnout. When a campaign simply posts an event on Eventful, it's broadcast out to other event sites, and discovered by users through the recommendation engine. However, most importantly, a posted event or comment by a candidate through our system immediately triggers an email to all demanders of that candidate in that area.

Meanwhile, Small campaigns are using Eventful in a very unique and beneficial way ‐ to actually let their supporters determine where to visit, such as Kucinich and Huckabee. After Huckabee's strong showing in the Iowa straw poll, the small campaign began receiving large amounts or attention and contributions. They soon discovered they had pockets of support around the country, but had no idea where. Huckabee now uses Eventful as a centerpiece and major call to action in their campaign, creating Google map mashups, adding Eventful widgets to their website, and including us in their weekly email updates.

I hope this case study in user-generated content furthers the cause of grassroots empowerment through the Internet, shows campaigns that it's OK to let go and give some control to their supporters, and inspires a new batch of catalysts to take politics to task with their own online movements. Mostly though, I hope my trip to Columbus, Kentucky is as exciting as this whole process has been, and that I make more friends like Shawn, Ryan and Amy, and, oh yeah, that Nicky's Barbecue is as good as I imagine it to be.

Alex Hunsucker is Business Development Manager at