A mayor worthy of the digital city?

As New York is consumed with the selection of a new mayor, it's natural to look at each of the candidates' digital credentials.

Update: This op-ed originally appeared on September 10, primary election day in New York City. On the Democratic side, public advocate Bill de Blasio finished first, with the possibility that he would face a primary challenge from former comptroller Bill Thompson. Former MTA chief Joe Lhota beat businessman John Catsimmatidis for the Republican nod.

On NYC.gov, you can find the digital roadmap – a document that seeks to realize "New York City's potential as the world's leading digital city." Between the remarkable growth of tech startups and the digital media industry, New York out-1-and-0'ing San Francisco doesn't sound so crazy.

As New York is consumed with the selection of a new mayor, it's natural to look at each of the candidates' digital credentials. And more than just looking at what candidates are saying about digital, it's worth looking at what they are actually doing. Are NYC's candidates doing a good job reflecting the Digital City in their campaigns? 

Last week, in these pages, Scott Widmeyer didn't seem encouraged. "Social media has had virtually no presence in the 2013 mayor's race." Widmeyer points to an abysmal showing on emerging networks, and somewhat meager follower statistics.

Is NYC one election away from being America's Analog City?

Before we can answer that question, we first need to know what rubric we should judge each campaign on. Is it their number of followers, mobile apps, or their embrace of emerging social networks?

The answer can not only be found in President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, but dates way back to Howard Dean's campaign in 2004. Dean wasn't an overnight online success because of his then-groundbreaking blog (how times change). Dean's online leaders realized that a successful electoral campaign organizes, engaging directly with supporters to build an army that feels like it is literally part of the campaign. Obama's campaigns built solidly on this foundation, bringing incredible scale. Whether it's for a president or a mayor, we think a robust grassroots organization is crucial to electoral success. Fundraising, advocacy, and get out the vote all start with dedicated supporters who feel a passionate connection to the candidate. With that in mind, we suggest looking at how each of the candidates is leveraging digital and social to engage and organize New Yorkers. Specifically, a focus on volunteerism and offline organizing stands as a good proxy.

Looking only at Twitter from July 15 through today, there are some important differences among the candidates and their approaches. Bill Thompson and Bill de Blasio stand out from the rest of the pack in one important way: volunteer asks. About 12% and 11% of all social posts, respectively, either discussed volunteerism or made a specific ask. This stands in contrast to other candidates, including Anthony Weiner, who despite the largest following, essentially didn't use Twitter as a campaign tool at all, and Joe Lhota, who only references volunteerism 2% of the time. Similar differences appear looking at a cross-section of candidate emails[1]. Over the summer, de Blasio sent more than five times the number of emails pushing list members offline as any other candidates. Christine Quinn also stands out, sending a similar number of volunteer-focused emails as de Blasio. And Lhota also stands out for a different reason, using his email program effectively as an ATM machine, sending fundraisers at the expense of volunteer asks.

And de Blasio may be reaping the benefits of a volunteer-focused campaign — with more than twice the retweets and favorites of any other candidate.

As Widmeyer rightly points out, no campaign other than Weiner has broken 10,000 followers. While it's difficult to judge the exact efficacy of an online-to-offline campaign without looking behind the scenes, the de Blasio campaign has shown considerable focus on organizing while crowds and interest have risen considerably.

Now, offline organizing and volunteering are only the foundation of a successful grassroots campaign. However, if de Blasio comes away with a victory, then his focus on digital organizing may well have helped him take the next step in becoming leader of the Digital City.

Josh Hendler is the global CTO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. He's a recovering campaign-a-holic, having previously served as technology chief for the Democratic National Committee.

[1] Collected over six weeks from July 15th through August 25th.

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