Ten years ago, it would've been hard to imagine candidates actively campaigning for a presidential election two years away. It would've been even harder to imagine that some of the well-financed, prominent candidates would announce their candidacy online or promote it on sites like YouTube.
Social networks officially have become mainstream, allowing politicos and businesses alike to endear prospects to their brand and services. Entrepreneurs can learn many lessons from the initiatives the current presidential campaigns will implement leading up to November 2008. While new trends likely will emerge during the next two years, here are some tactics businesses should consider enacting now.
Ready, Set, Post
Former senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards made his recent 2008 candidacy declaration on his website the day before his scheduled, prepared speech. Launching his campaign online extended the shelf life of the announcement with the major news outlets by one day. Edwards' online presentation also enhanced his reputation as a relevant candidate among younger voters, while appearing more savvy and creative to voters in general.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Hillary Clinton launched her official campaign in a webcast on January 20 and has since aired online weekly "HillCasts" to communicate with voters on topics such as affordable children's healthcare, alternative energy funding and equal pay for women in business. As a result, her campaign site drew 828,000 unique visitors in January and was the top presidential campaign site for the month.
Entrepreneurs can leverage the web in the same manner--as the first line of communications--for a variety of purposes, including new product launches, strategic distribution partnerships and user feedback. A strategic internet presence can provide a virtual focus group and valuable information that can help guide business decisions and market approaches.
Power to Your People
Free tools offered on Sen. Barack Obama's website are helping supporters create their own social network sites and gather donations from people who otherwise may not contribute. One man created his own "South Asians for Obama' web portal and gathered $1,600 in campaign contributions for the Illinois Democrat in a matter of days--some coming from people he had never met.
Other candidates are also getting into the mix. Sen. John McCain's official presidential campaign site invites visitors to sign up to create their own "McCainSpace" site and join his online community of the same name. His campaign staff created an NCAA Basketball Championship bracket section on his official site to keep visitors at the site longer. Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Richardson, another Democratic presidential hopeful, is asking backers to join one or more of his "grassroots" campaigns started on MySpace, Facebook, Flickr and other social networking sites. Icons on his campaign site lead directly to his profile on the various social networks so users can post blogs and link their own pages to Richardson's.
Businesses can implement the same tactics by developing communities based on the company's ideals and benefits. By involving your customers this way, they become more than referrals; they become devout online evangelists. Just provide them the tools and support and watch them work for you.
Here's an example of social networks in action in the political arena: Approximately 300 of Obama's supporters came together in Dallas in late February to boost the politician's campaign knowing the candidate wasn't scheduled to make an appearance. The group organized the event not with the help of official campaign organizers, but through Meetup.com.
Social networks may in fact take on a life of their own, but that can be a good thing if you understand and manage them correctly. Look at the effect Apple has on its own community. And if you think this approach is only for cool tech companies, think again. Even large companies such as General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac unit, Procter & Gamble and the Portland Trailblazers are launching their own social networks.
The Ground Rules
Before you venture into any virtual community, here are some guidelines to consider:
- Be strategic. Think of social networking in the same light as any other sales, marketing or customer service initiative. Set business goals first, target audiences appropriately, craft key messages and know what the desired outcomes are before creating your first online profile.
- Be truthful. Falsehoods are falsehoods, whether they're told to a top reporter at a major news outlet or to "Bugsy" on Facebook.
- Be transparent. If you're promoting your company, say so. Nothing is worse than creating a fictitious persona that is later uncovered by your target audience. You and your company's credibility will take a nose dive.
- Be careful what you wish for. Social networks are interactive, informative and immediate. All of these traits can be valuable to your business, if you're prepared to deal with them. If you don't want to hear what your stakeholders are saying about you, then don't get involved.
Reid Carr is president of Red Door Interactive, a San Diego-based internet presence management firm. Clients include Intuit, Nanogen and Cricket Communications. For more information, visit www.reddoor.biz.