Q&A: The Cyber Road to the White House

WASHINGTON Political Internet expert Mark SooHoo, an adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign, uses online video, issue-related search words and viral marketing to tell a human story and build a community, just like any marketer.

A senior vice president at Campaign Solutions, a Republican online consulting firm, SooHoo has also worked on the 2004 Republican National Convention Web site and the Internet venues of former New York Governor George Pataki and former Republican Missouri Senator Jim Talent. His firm is currently advising the campaigns of Senators Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

He talks to Adweek senior writer Wendy Melillo about what marketers can learn from digital politics and what Republican campaigns have learned from marketing.

Q: What is the single most positive impact the Internet has had on the election process, and the single most negative?
A: The single most positive impact is giving anyone with an Internet connection the ability to learn more, have their voice heard and get involved with the political process. The downside is that misinformation travels just as fast as factual information online, so the rumor or outright lie can get exposure on Web sites or blogs that it might not have received before.

What digital lessons can brand managers take from political advertising?
The interesting thing is the importance of building a community through e-mails. Your outreach to your supporters is very critical. But a key component to most political campaigns is developing that sense of community, and you build that by keeping people informed through e-mail newsletters. An e-mail address really has a value for a political campaign and that is because politics is not necessarily something that is on people’s minds every moment of the day. And in terms of lessons learned, there is an important sense of strategy that is needed there. You don’t want to overuse your list or burn it out, but at the same time people are giving you their e-mail address because they want to stay informed. For all political campaigns, there is an important balance between the frequency of the e-mail and how you are writing it. In terms of frequency, a lot depends on the cycle within the political calendar. We send out more around important dates in the campaign like speeches, deadlines and debates, which are the important things that you can predict. Once a day is too much and once a month is too little. Two to three e-mails a week is about right.

What is a smart Internet approach in politics that the average marketer should consider?
The one story that doesn’t get written often enough is the importance of the customer relationship management that happens in online campaigns. Today there is very sophisticated micro-targeting being done by campaigns, much of which is aided by the Internet. That has implications for advertising as well in terms of donor modeling and we are just on the tip of the iceberg here. As more time and attention shifts to the Internet, you will see political campaigns say, “How can we target our message online?” The great thing about the Internet is you can target to a much more specific audience. You can deliver a Nascar message to a Nascar audience.

What makes Internet strategies used now for a candidate’s overall message so different from those used in the 2000 campaign? Has the emergence of social networks changed the game?
My standard line is social networking has been around for a long time. Politics is social networking. There is a lot of potential out there, but I don’t think it has changed the game. At the end of the day, it is still getting people to vote for your candidate. MySpace and Facebook are just different tools in the tool kit and each one has value. The Internet at its core is a very powerful enabler, but it is still about your candidate’s message. What we say to ourselves is how can we use the Internet to promote our candidate and to put his message out there. A lot of media attention gets paid to the process, but it is all about your candidate and the message.

What techniques on McCain’s Web site do you think have worked really well? What would you change?
I think we have had a very positive response to our online videos. Everything doesn’t have to be serious. We did McCain’s NCAA Brackets, where voters could see his picks and compare their picks against him. People thought it was fun and interesting. McCain is a big sports fan and it was a new way for people to connect with him. It is about building a community. The most successful campaigns are the ones where people feel a connection to a candidate and each other. They have a sense of ownership and belonging. You have a much larger canvas to paint on with the Internet. You have more opportunity to tell a personal story or go more in depth on issues than you ever could with a 30-second spot. I think you will see a lot more of the made for Web videos like what Hillary Clinton did with the Sopranos’ video.

The McCain campaign is paying Google to display an ad for the campaign when certain search words are used. Why do you believe focusing on issue-related key words is a good strategy, and is it working?
We are very big fans of search advertising. It allows you to reach out to people who are looking for you. People are using search everyday to find information and being able to advertise on that is the logical next step. Overall, we have seen a very good return on investment since the cost is relatively low and we are getting great exposure in terms of generating online donations. At all levels of how much you decide to put in, you can be successful and you can control your costs. If you have a great Web site, but nobody can find you that is practically useless. I don’t have any specific results to share but I can say our search marketing has been very effective because it allows us to put John McCain’s message in front of searchers where other techniques like organic search would be difficult to optimize. Our paid search results have been very positive and issue advertising has allowed us to expand our reach to new audiences. (A July 2 report from Nielsen NetRatings and BuzzMetrics found that McCain led Republicans in online buzz because of his heavy online spending in recent months. McCain had 12 times the exposure of other candidates as a result of online advertising in April, generating nearly 26 million unique impressions.)

Are there any techniques you have learned from the marketing community that are outside of politics?
The Bud.TV ad where they have the swear jar. People in an office have to put money in a jar each time they swear. The shtick is they would use the money to buy Bud, which only encouraged people to swear more. It was very funny and interesting, and people spread it virally. The viral nature is what campaigns focus on. The online campaign surrounding the Snakes on a Plane movie is another example. Or the 7-Eleven stores that are doing makeovers to look like Kwik-E-Marts in conjunction with the upcoming Simpsons Movie. They will sell (Simpsons-related) Squishees and Buzz Cola. The JibJab cartoon in the 2004 presidential election got more views than most political Web sites simply because it was funny, interesting and people told each other about it. This goes back to finding a community. When John McCain was at the Coca-Cola Nascar race, that got passed around virally. The unifying factor in anything that is viral is a message that is unique. For politics it is usually a lot more inspirational and for corporate it is funny or different or groundbreaking. Political campaigns are looking to tap into viral marketing.