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Note to GOP: Websites Still Matter

BY Patrick Ruffini | Thursday, July 5 2007

When critics point to the Republican Party's problems online, my response is that our problems aren't online. Our problems are offline, in a cranky base, in a reluctance to truly motivate and inspire cause-oriented Republican voters, and in the fact that we are in power in the midst of an unpopular war. Many of these apparent problems go away or get a lot better once we unify against Hillary as the nominee. If this were simply a contest of Web sites and technology -- GeorgeWBush.com vs. JohnKerry.com in 2004, GOP.com vs. Democrats.org, Voter Vault vs. Demzilla, microtargeting vs. what exactly? -- Republicans would win hands down.

Or at least, that seems to have been the case until now.

I've worked with enough of the developers and tech visionaries on the Republican side to know that the talent to build great online experiences, ones that connect you directly with your voters, exists in abundance. But recently, this approach has lost ground to a theory that the best way to communicate with your base is through third parties like bloggers and social networks. That means Republicans are far out front on things like blogger conference calls, hashing out legislation on Red State, and Twittering. And they're quietly losing ground on the basics of online campaigning: e-mail lists, Web development, and video.

This third-party approach has much to commend it, and in fact, I've happily pushed it to its limit when I needed to. There are times when third party validators are more trusted. Campaign blogs are generally lame; authentic blog communities are vibrant and unscripted. I write this as a former campaign blogger who's gotten more attention doing my first few outside calls than in "blogging" for The Man for over a year.

But as Colin Delany, Alan Rosenblatt, and I never tire of noting, there is a time and place for the boring grunt work of Web sites, databases, and e-mail lists. We can't let the glitz and press value of blogging distract us from the task at hand.

House Republicans especially have made great use of the blogosphere -- I've lost count of how many MoC's have waded into the comments at Red State, and many Leadership offices from John Boehner to Eric Cantor to Roy Blunt on Twitter, the bleedingest edge of the social Web. And for their government offices, that makes good strategic sense, as the limits on what can do on official online real estate are myriad. But I've seen these priorities gradually move out into the field; at candidate trainings, what people want to hear most about are blogs. Here's what's just as much if not more important: email collection, splash pages, petition drives, fundraising.

In many cases, this trend towards outsourcing online communications is evident in staffing decisions. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have online staffs of at least 10, and they are not profligate campaigns; combined they spent less than Mitt Romney did in Q1. Having managed a web team roughly this size, I can tell you that they make all the difference in being able to generate features and content that drive traffic spikes and money; below a certain level, you're just treading water.

This week, John McCain lost Christian Ferry, the only publicly identifiable member of his Web team. Most of the interesting things they were doing online (the basketball bracket, promised upgrades to McCainSpace, webcasting major addresses) died after the Q1 filing. After their Q2 Waterloo, their once ubiquitous Google display ads disappeared from sites like mine. It's clear than when push came to shove, the higher-ups did not view a sophisticated Web operation as the profit center it is on almost all campaigns that try it.

The best campaigns take a balanced approach to the blogosphere and the direct marketing side of the Web. Blogs are buzz engines that can drive narratives and the national media. But their strength wanes outside of that core messaging value. The limits to the blogosphere are deep and profound. Blogs can't generate the money or volunteers that e-mail lists can. Blogs can't give you the numbers to build a mass movement. Blogs preach to the converted and rarely ever persuade. Obama's 258,000 contributors aren't bloggers -- but rank-and-file Democrats. If you've done your job, the people on your email list will look like your average party member, and not hyper-connected elitists. In 2004, GeorgeWBush.com received 30,000,000 absolute unique visitors, half our vote total. The number of serious blog readers doesn't get anywhere that total. Bloggers may be more intense, but their vote counts the same as that low-propensity conservative voter in Appleton, Wisconsin you need to win.

I've been on a bit of a Zack Exley-quoting tear lately, but his response to the left-liberal blogosphere after 2004 is well worth pondering:

I keep getting criticized by Internet thinkers for being all top-down. The reason: I keep telling them that when it comes to campaigns (and only campaigns) they need to stop focusing on communication among supporters TO THE EXCLUSION of communication from the center.

What many forget is that the Dean campaign was driven by communication among supporters -- but also by communication from the campaign to supporters. Call it "top down" if you must. Joe Trippi posted on the blog right alongside other supporters. But he also sent emails to his growing email list. And those emails spawned much more organizing and raised much more money than the Dean blog did. That is not to denigrate the blog. It's just a numbers thing: not all 600,000 Dean email subscribers visited the blog every day. But they did check their email everyday. So Joe could reach more people by posting to the blog AND sending an email than by ONLY posting to the blog. I know that no one is saying campaigns shouldn't email their supporters. But conventional wisdom of the web devalues that communication from the center. And I just think that it's important for Democratic campaigns to get good at that.

They have gotten good at it, which is scary. This time, Hillary ginned up a song contest just to build her database. Barack Obama is getting every email address from his crowds. Offline interest and buzz is not just a circular thing that gets spun back into the media ether; it gets channeled into serious money and volunteers. A guest blogpost is not the same as communicating directly to your "ones" often and directly.