The White House race is highlighting the chasm between using the Web and using it effectively
A recent social media experiment by Hillary Clinton attracted over 100,000 responses, but was, more or less, a wasted opportunity.
"I want to know what you're thinking on one of the most important questions of this campaign," Clinton deadpanned on a Web video, currently on her Web site and on YouTube.
The big issue she was grappling with... choosing her campaign song.
All of the 2008 presidential candidates have made significant investments in turning their Web sites into social media and multimedia hubs. However, most of what you will find on these sites is the same stuff you'll find anywhere - videotaped speeches, ads, and talk show appearances.
And while some candidates are deploying conversational technologies like those found on sites like MySpace, FaceBook, YouTube, and blogs, Gur Tsabar, VP of new media strategies at Ketchum, points out that those campaigns, like Clinton's song contest, often times fail to engage potential voters on a serious level.
"Hillary's video set [her] up well to disappoint everyone," says Tsabar, who is also a co-creator of Room 8, an online community blog focused on New York politics. "I think it's a cutesy maneuver on the idea of crowdsourcing. But the wider base that's looking to really engage with candidates will [want] more."
He adds: "How much more powerful of a message would Hillary be sending if she [let] each and every one of us submit suggestions to help shape her policy platform?"
Brian Reich, director of new media for Cone and the former briefing director for Al Gore, says that the media are too quick to laud candidates for using the technology, even though it is not being applied towards discussing important issues.
Clinton is not alone in using her Web site for the inconsequential. John Edwards uses Twitter to send updates on where he is in the US, while John McCain asked supporters to sign up for a March Madness college basketball tournament bracket.
"There are a ton of articles being written about how accomplished the Internet staffs of these campaigns are, but they haven't proven anything yet," Reich says. "The [Howard] Dean campaign didn't make it out of Iowa."
Social media is meant to engage the audience, but these tactics are not truly inviting engagement. As Dean's failed presidential campaign showed, success is probably not determined by how many e-signatures one collects and how much money is raised online.
Success ultimately comes down to who is going to get people to trudge to the polls to cast their vote. And it seems silly that people would be more inclined to do that because politicians are using technological innovations for amusing things.
Reich commented that, if used properly, social media can replicate the first-person experience that most politicians are used to on the campaign trail.
He adds that the primaries are the critical time to truly engage with people on a personal level, whereas the national election relies more on mass-media, with candidates only making stops in key states.
"It's a different use of media, tools, and time," he says.
In many respects, politicians and companies, as well as their staffs in the communications industry, are trying to figure out how to use social media tools to their most effective ends. Perhaps they're not yet equipped to comprehend what true dialogues can be had online, or maybe they're staying as far away from anything unscripted as possible.
The candidates also may not be prepared for the labor intensity of creating and maintaining a network of online friends. Perhaps they don't realize that the Internet, as a unique medium, requires a different technique from the others.
Reich predicts that it will be a couple more election cycles before politicians get the hang of it, but Election Day 2008 is 18 months away. For now, we have to make do with Shania Twain or U2.