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John McCain: Tolstoy in My Inbox

BY Patrick Ruffini | Thursday, May 15 2008

Today, I sat in on my first McCain blogger conference call and cheered as McCain promised to continue these sessions on a biweekly basis as President. (Contrast with Barack Obama, whose netroots coordinator left in frustration at Obama’s refusal to be similarly accessible.) And this comes on top of weekly press conferences, and submitting to questions in the well of the House a la the British Prime Minister. McCain could become the most transparent and cross-examined President in history.

Online, it seems to be a different story, at least when it comes the image of John McCain as projected on and in the daily emails that go out under his name. Good online strategy is simple: reflect the very best of your candidate offline. John McCain offline is transparent, accessible, and willing to answer any question. John McCain online is stilted and awkwardly asking me for money. There’s a fundamental disconnect.

The email the McCain camp sent today illustrates the problem. I’m deliberately zooming out because I don’t want you to focus on the copy:

These are recent emails sent by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton:

Even from a distance, it’s night and day. You’ve got brevity and short, rapid-fire paragraphs. They feature a clear call to action above the fold. They’re highly readable, or more to the point, scannable – since the average reader online reads no more than 20% of content. They respect today’s attention-deprived user. Less is more.

Most important is what these messages say about the candidate. These messages were crafted solely for the e-mail channel. I don’t know about you, but the e-mails I get everyday from friends and colleagues look a lot more like Hillary and Barack’s e-mails than they do War and Peace. I’ve even entertained the thought of Obama banging out a few pithy sentences on the MacBook Pro in the hotel suite on the way to the victory party (it’s believable enough). I know that he didn’t, but the fact that I’ve wondered counts for something.

McCain’s e-mail start off with the anachronistic “From the Desk of John McCain” — a 1970s-era direct mail device I haven’t seen on a piece of real stationery in a decade. The haughty phrasing is designed to evoke a sense of prestige — the sense that the person addressing you is Big and Important. But the Internet is not about being Big and Important. It’s about being One of Us. Again: fundamental disconnect. McCain offline gets this, shedding the trappings of the Imperial Presidency. McCain online, not so much.

But that concern pales in comparison to the content. Today’s e-mail, in marked contrast to the short, e-mail-like e-mails from Hillary and Barack, is lifted from speech text. In that he spoke the words, it is him. But it’s not him communicating something unique for the online audience. It’s him or his handlers keeping us at a safe distance using the most formal version of McCain possible – again, the polar opposite of what McCain’s offline strategy is about.

The explanation for why this is actually very prosaic: the approval process. In a short-staffed campaign, the easiest — and sometimes the only — option is to lift from already approved text. Nobody has the time to spend up to 24 hours getting all new text approved by McCain or his closest advisers, by which time the window of opportunity may have passed. And McCain’s signature nets more money than Rick Davis’s, no matter how you word the message. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

In the moment, it all makes sense. The problem is that over time, you wind up cheapening McCain’s personal brand. Maybe I’m being a Steve Jobs-like pie-in-the-sky perfectionist here, but having to play along with the illusion that John McCain sat down at his desk to deliver us gobs of text is demeaning both to us and to McCain. This is not direct mail. We are not some people data-mined off a consumer list who’ve never heard from you before. We opted-in. We are the top 1% — the savviest, most interested, most influential supporters. We get the joke. On the flip side, consider how much Hillary and Obama get simply by seeming real in their e-mails, even if they don’t get to cram in as many policy points.

This may all seem very esoteric, but it’s important. The pixels you see in the Hillary and Barack e-mails fueled the rise of the biggest people-powered fundraising machine in history. It’s worth studying how they do things at a very minute level.

Improvement starts by smashing the desk — and giving us the real McCain.