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Candidates Rethink Web Strategy

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WASHINGTON For all the attention the presidential candidates paid to their Web efforts when launching their campaigns, the contenders may need to rethink their strategies if the sites have little or no impact on voters, as the data generated by a new service that maps political debate in the blogosphere contends.

Presidentialwatch08.com tracks the U.S. presidential election by illustrating the links between the mainstream media and conservative and liberal blogs. The site analyzes the conversations on 300 influential political Web sites including dailykos.com on the left and michellemalkin.com on the right.

Created by Linkfluence, the U.S. affiliate of the French social media company RTGI, which handled French presidential candidate Segolene Royal's online efforts, the site measures how candidates' messages are resonating on blogs. The trends monitored by Linkfluence's technology work like opinion polls, i.e., they give a snapshot of online public opinion on selected topics at a specific time. What the data shows is that the candidates' Web sites are not linking to influential political blogs and the blogs are not linking back to the candidates' Web sites.

"When the candidates campaign in real life, they go to rallies and schools where people are," says Anthony Hamelle, vp of RTGI. "But on the Internet, they wait for people to come to them and that doesn't work. Online, you have to go where people are and you have to meet people."

Mitch Stoller, a partner at Group SJR, a New York-based strategy firm that has partnered with Linkfluence to provide consulting services to marketers, political campaigns and advocacy groups, argues that the problem for presidential candidates is their campaigns structure the online content to work as an advertising message to voters.

"There is nothing more important in the blogosphere than the authenticity of content and whether it is interesting," Stoller says. "The candidates' Web sites seem to be driven by an advertising message. But that doesn't work in the blogosphere, which requires a more idiosyncratic voice. The candidates have not tapped in to this."

What the site does is identify the "virtual town halls, schools, homes and churches of the Internet where people meet, debate and influence one another," Stoller says.

Monitoring the blogosphere is something that is done routinely now by most candidates and brands, so in that sense what Presidentialwatch08.com is offering is not unique. But Stoller argues that monitoring is not enough. Candidates and brands need to actively engage the blogosphere to make an impact on voters and consumers.

Take Hillary Clinton's campaign going in to the Iowa caucuses. Liberal Web sites receiving the most links in early December, according to Presidentialwatch08.com data, like firedoglake.com, commondreams.org and themoderatevoice.com, were full of comments suggesting that Clinton's campaign seemed too "inevitable," and that she felt more like a "political adviser" than a true "policy maker." The blogs also said she had been too anxious to position her candidacy at the center of the political spectrum in a state where Democrats were actually more liberal than conventional wisdom would suggest.

Stoller says Clinton could have used this information to both alter her campaign strategy and respond to the viewpoints to blunt or counter the comments made by the online bloggers.

"In particular, even if Hillary was unable to move the left given the importance of remaining a centrist candidate throughout the primary process, our insights would have allowed the Clinton campaign to better position expectations and prevent Iowa from being seen as the beginning of a [Barack] Obama steamroll, as we know it was not," he says. "With such a concentrated and intense primary process, expectations can be almost as crucial as outcomes."

The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

But all of this assumes that presidential campaigns are willing to agree that online blogs and social networks have become as important as other forms of traditional communication like television. "The jury is still out on whether the blogs can compete with the credibility, accountability and longevity of television over the last four decades," says David Mercer, a Democratic political strategist who has worked on five presidential elections, including the 2004 John Kerry and the 2000 Al Gore campaigns. "Because we are entering this new age of the Internet, it is still a monitoring exercise. And because of the quick pace of the campaigns, there has yet to be a true harnessing of the Internet."

Mercer says that the consultants behind Presidentialwatch08.com are not bogged down in the day-to-day frenzy of a presidential campaign, so they can serve a useful purpose in coming up with ways the Internet can provide greater utility to all kinds of marketing campaigns.

Marketing analysts like Seth Godin agree with the notion that presidential campaign Web sites are not working. "It is very easy for a candidate to spend a lot of time and money tweaking their Web sites, but that doesn't make it a vibrant part of the political conversation," Godin says. "The paradox is that what it takes to succeed in the conversation online are things that often get in the way of getting the majority of American citizens to vote for you. You need transparency, controversy and candor, which are things the presidential candidates are taught to avoid."

Some of the presidential campaigns even agree. "I would say that the argument is partially true to a point because of where we are in the history of the Internet," says Aaron Myers, Internet director for the John Edwards campaign. "No company, brand or candidate has complete control of what is said about them online."

Myers says that Internet users are more likely to spend three minutes watching a YouTube video of Edwards speaking passionately about an issue rather than actively seeking out the candidate's position on healthcare, for example. And he says the Edwards campaign goes to great lengths to reach bloggers but acknowledges that there are certain limitations.

"I wish we had an army of people to respond to every blog comment, but we would need an army of volunteers to do that," he says. "What Presidentialwatch08.com is demonstrating is that there are a number of places a campaign's message shows up. In the conversation about a candidate, there are places online where discussions are happening constantly and our campaign will never see or hear all of them. It is not possible. But we recognize we can put out YouTube content, widgets and things that get syndicated in a very Web. 2.0 fashion that people will use and it will appear throughout the Web."

Other political strategists like Mike Connell, whose clients include John McCain for President and the Republican National Committee, thinks that analyzing the links to and from blogs is useful up to a point. But a presidential campaign may not always want to disclose where all of its messages originate.

"Sometimes people have a habit of thinking of a blog like a megaphone and that is how you contribute to the conversation," Connell says. "But that is not always how it is done. Having your message percolate up from the grassroots through the blogs has emerged as an effective strategy as well."

Campaigns are not always the best source of information, Connell says. "Many times a message will have more credibility coming from a third party, so a campaign doesn't always want to be the source of the information," he says. "There is a certain merit in independent sources. Sometimes you just want a positive message attributed to a third party because it has more credibility that way. We are talking about more than simply planting rumors and other dark arts here."

Where the real value of sites like Presidentialwatch08.com may lie is in their ability to identify and reach influentials. "This is the kind of thing that helps you scale your outreach efforts," says Peter Kim, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Consumers say they look to the recommendations of friends and family when making a purchasing decision. We see consumers looking online for peer recommendations on message boards and in chat rooms. I would say the same information applies to elections."

Wendy Melillo is an Adweek contributing writer and an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University. She can be reached at wmelillo@adweek.com.