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Message vs. Tactics Online

BY Patrick Ruffini | Friday, July 13 2007

The New York Times has a story on the online fundraising disparity between Democrats and Republicans online. I'm quoted in it, to the effect that the environment stinks for Republicans right now, and we have an opportunity to do better against someone like Hillary as an opponent in the general election. Online fundraising will explode come the general election, on both sides. The question is whether we'll rise enough to keep up. That's what keeps me up at night (as you can probably tell by the timestamp on this post).

This is a generational challenge for the GOP. For Republican campaign operatives, direct marketing has always meant direct mail. In this context, Internet fundraising for some boils down to grafting the old message onto the new medium -- taking the direct mail message, tweaking it, maybe adding some video and other bells and whistles, but generally not rocking the boat.

It's self-evident to those of who do this for a living that the Internet is not direct mail. But what's lost on the old guard sometimes is that the Internet is not just different, but is objectively better. That's not because it's more lucrative (right now) but because it's able to instantly deliver and refine a message, and to allow supporters to interact with the campaign in real time. I'll bet you Obama's direct mail consultants wish they were the Internet people, because it's so much easier online if you do it right.

Email is also a strategic communications medium, where direct mail is not. The point of direct mail is to not make news, and to fly under the radar. The average direct mail letter makes incredible claims to rile up supporters to give you money, but they are claims that no serious observer would ever take seriously. "Mr. Smith, the June 30th fundraising deadline is just around the corner. If I don't raise the necessary funds to compete, Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy will cackle with glee as they down tequilas with their left-wing Hollywood comrades. Please rush your emergency contribution using the enclosed envelope at your earliest convenience."

You can't get away with that online. Every reporter is on your list. But that liberates you in a way, because email becomes a primary and public communications medium, and you get to use it as a strategic instrument of the campaign. That's why I wrote that email that could've been from the McCain campaign. Most emails use proven marketing techniques to juice response to a boilerplate message. What I'm talking about is different: using the Internet as the steering wheel for the overall campaign. Online, people don't care about tools, tactics, or techniques. At the end of the day, even bloggers don't care if you're on Twitter or MySpace. That's why posts about the trade like this one get very little coment traffic. What they do care about is your message, your strategy, and your candidate. Give them an opportunity to directly access that and shape it, and you leave behind the world of direct mail incrementalism and enter an entirely new orbit of effectiveness. That's why Fred (and not a staffer) is his own blogger outreach guy.

At the end of day, your message carries your online fundraising. In a good environment, the message is the good environment and how great you're doing. That's why the Democrats have a baseline advantage right now. In a bad environment, it becomes incumbent on you to use the viralness of the Web to orchestrate a massive pushback against the environment itself. That's why Fred is tapping the frustration of the rightroots. And, as a friend pointed out to me the other day, McCain now has no choice but to use the Internet as a strategic vehicle for turning things around, because he certainly can't afford to do it any other way.

If you view the Internet as a shiny new toy, or worse, a new coat of paint on the old jalopy, you're missing the point. Increasingly, it's becoming the platform from which campaign strategy itself is executed. That's why stuff like body language towards the medium at the candidate level matters (Fred's blogging, Barack's dinners, Hillary's Sopranoing). Tactics without strategy will get you nowhere.