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On Fred's Announcement

BY Patrick Ruffini | Saturday, September 1 2007

Allen Fuller has a great post up discussing Fred's online announcement on September 6th. For whatever reason, people's antennae seem to go up whenever there's an inkling of Fred running a video-based campaign, and this is no exception.

Fred Thompson will launch a legitimate campaign for President via webcast. That's just unreal. Sure, Hillary and Edwards and all them did it months ago, but that was months ago when there was no pressure and relatively little media attention. I'm as much of a new media guy as anyone, and I applaud them for going for it, but this is risky at best. Friends of Fred Thompson will not get nearly the attention from the mainstream media as a big event on the square in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. would. On the other hand, this does play to his strength. He is a professional TV actor after all. I'd imagine they will allow networks to play the broadcast-quality video live as well. Either way it is a go-for-broke strategy and I'm interested to see how it plays out.

I for one applaud Fred for announcing on the Web. It's a strategy I've advocated for candidates in different settings for months. With that said, context matters. And to put it mildly, I don't think they've handled the run-up to this announcement very well.

Let's rewind to the Hillary and Obama online announcements. What key element did they have in common? Surprise. No one knew they were doing it until their visage popped up on their newly launched Presidential sites. This created a powerful, almost irresistible rush of Google-driven traffic to their candidate websites. In fact, I can tell you exactly where I was for each of them. On the Tuesday morning Obama announced I was at a meeting offsite and dropped in on a friend in his office, where he showed me the video on his workstation. And the next Saturday morning, I remember getting the Hillary Clinton e-mail titled "I'm in." Two things stand out: one, I don't think I ever opened and rushed to click through on an email so fast, and second, I felt really behind the news cycle because the email had been sent a mere hour before. This was Hillary Clinton making a major strategic announcement... in an email.

The lesson here is that the element of surprise combined with exclusivity on the Web combined to create a blockbuster traffic day on these sites. While on the site, newly minted supporters could contribute or sign up for emails. On each of their announcement days, I estimate that Clinton and Obama netted at least $500,000 and 50,000 email supporters, though I have reason to believe this is a conservative estimate. And the big point I made in my presentation on Wednesday is that this type of low-dollar fundraising and email recruitment is not a one-off. The people recruited that day will continue to give money, volunteer, and add value until the campaign is over.

Therein lies the advantage of a virtual over a traditional announcement: the virtual kind has tangible fundraising and base-building benefits. By contrast, go on Hannity or Larry King or do an event that gets covered by the cables and you might get shuffled into the short term memory of 2 to 3 million people, but the effect on your Web traffic is prophylactic. If TV viewers want to donate, they have to be motivated enough to go to their computer, Google you (make sure your site is #1 and/or you have bought AdWords!), and see a context-less site that may not yet make mention of this breaking news, and then stumble upon a contribution link. That's a lot less effective than roadblocking people to your site, creating the impression that the only way to get it is by going to your site, and then monetizing this vastly larger audience.

But context and surprise matters. These kinds of virtual announcements can lose their potency if people don't feel it's really news. It wasn't a huge surprise that both Clinton and Obama would get into the Presidential race. Where and when was a matter of huge speculation, and each of them effectively answered it in one titilating email.

Simply put, the time for Fred to do a video announcement is not now, but in early June when there was rampant speculation over whether he would run. (Remember, this was when people thought he was a stalking horse for McCain!) And he didn't even need to "announce." He could have simply unveiled his site and invited people to join his "testing the waters" committee -- similar to how Obama announced an "exploratory" effort on January 15th. Then he could have done a traditional announcement later.

Fred's first day fundraising numbers were phenomenal nonetheless, but he could have doubled or tripled them by ending the speculation with a well-timed Internet video.

There is no doubt that will see a large traffic bump next Thursday, but it probably won't be as large as it could have been because this is 1) his secondary announcement, and 2) there's no surprise to it (they announced this new media strategy in the stodgiest way possible -- on a conference call with big donors). But I could be wrong: Obama saw bigger traffic for his real announcement than for his exploratory announcement.

Fred-skeptics have picked apart his video-driven strategy as a sign of laziness. But the Internet is not an "either-or" medium; it is the ultimate "and" medium. And it's by far the most candidate-friendly. Traditional media will not boycott an announcement just because it's online. They'll play your video on the air. But the reference to it being online invites viewers to go to your site to get the full thing in its entirety. That's not the case for B-roll from a traditional announcement rally, because it's not obvious where to go to get the raw, unfiltered footage.

I'll be waiting with bated breath to see what Fred's Alexa and Quantcast numbers look like on Friday.