What the French Taught Us

WASHINGTON Click on the Freestyle Zone, one of 16 video channels on French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s Web site, and you begin to understand how this former candidate’s Internet strategy played a big role in helping him win the May 6 election. On just this channel, 22 videos feature material submitted by people from around the world—and selected by Sarkozy’s campaign—all expressing support for the conservative party candidate with words and songs. In one music video, a young black man croons pro-Sarkozy lyrics to the tune of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Another offers to be the “official song of the Sarkozy campaign”; in it, men shout, “Sark-O. Oh! Oh!” to a techno beat as Sarkozy, sleeves rolled up, is seen high-fiving a crowd of supporters in the background.

Sarkozy’s video-rich Web site, which contains a hefty amount of user-generated content, has captured the attention of American political consultants who think presidential candidates will use the Internet in major ways during the 2008 election and can learn a trick or two from their French brethren. “One of the key things you could observe was Sarkozy and his campaign minute by minute through video, as if you had an eye on the Sarkozy world at any moment of the day,” says David Mercer, a Democratic strategist who has worked on five presidential elections, including the 2004 John Kerry campaign and the 2000 Al Gore campaign. “You felt that you could pop into the campaign without leaving your own environment, which gave a sense of spontaneity externally, but internally, in fact, it was very controlled.”

Opposition Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal took a less controlled, and more inclusive, approach by building a social-networking-like site that became known to French voters as Ségoland. The online mission statement: “This site is a participatory forum. It is at your disposal if you wish to participate in the decisions that affect us all.” People were invited to submit their ideas about what policies her platform should include and to visit other pro-Royal blogs, forming a Web-based community founded on the idea of participatory democracy.

To get things started, Royal offered users easy-to-follow instructions on how to set up a personal, pro-Ségolène blog. Viewers were given four choices: a support blog following Royal’s day-to-day news; a local blog for community-based groups; a resource blog containing clips and graphics that supporters could download and share; and a thematic blog about specific issues. People were encouraged to advertise their blog, publish it in other blogs and link it to the official Royal site. Fifteen hundred blogs were set up by the end of the six-month campaign and more than 4 million people linked up to the blogs.

Sarkozy’s tightly controlled, video-dominant site, combined with Royal’s heavy use of social networking to foster communities of loyal voters, represent key learning opportunities for America’s 2008 presidential election, where the Internet has already emerged as an important player in the election process, according to the French-American Foundation. The non-profit group, which fosters ties between France and the U.S., sponsored a tour in April for American political consultants to study the French elections. Six Democratic and Republican political advisors attended.

Foundation president Nicholas Dungan says that because France prohibits American-style pay-as-you-go political advertising, French candidates focus far less on broadcast ads and are forced to be more creative and innovative. Spots are limited to public TV and radio stations, where candidates receive the same amount of airtime. The equal-time rule is closely monitored and enforced by an independent authority that governs French broadcasts. There are no such restrictions online.

“The most important democratic value in the U.S. is personal liberty, but in France it is equality,” Dungan says of the equal-time rule. “Otherwise, the government could be seen as perpetuating their own party.”

What also made the French election so intriguing, says Dungan, is the fact that it was the first time since 1974 that the candidates running had not served as either prime minister or president, which is similar to the circumstances surrounding the 2008 American presidential election, where no incumbents from the White House are running. High-speed Internet is present in 45 percent of French households, and 85 percent of registered voters turn out to vote; in the U.S., 61 percent of adults have access to the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Sixty-four percent of Americans voted in the 2004 presidential election per the U.S. Census Bureau. Which means French campaigns “are not worried about getting out the vote the way we are, and they don’t have the same concerns about fundraising,” says Karen Finney, director of communications for the Democratic National Committee, who also made the trip to France.

The lessons the strategists learned, based on interviews with several of them, include an understanding of how Sarkozy effectively took the YouTube model and modified it to suit his own purposes. Also, Royal’s Internet strategy, they say, may have emphasized the social-networking aspects of the Web to help her build a larger community, but it also hurt her because she had less opportunity to control the discussion. Her failure to deliver a cohesive message, however, had a lot to do with her general campaign strategy: Based on user input from about 1.5 million people, and the town-hall style meetings she held, Royal adopted 100 presidential proposals that became her platform, something Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who is a top advisor to the Mitt Romney campaign and also went on the trip, called “99 too many,” in published reports. “What you need is one message.”

Royal’s strategy of engaging the masses begins on the Ségoland home page, where users are greeted with text-heavy content delivered in the style of a blog. There are some YouTube-style videos, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Sarkozy effort. (Sarkozy’s staff shot nearly one video a day for a total of about 200 videos on his Web site.) Go deeper, and Ségoland is presented as a map where viewers are encouraged to help create a network by linking up with other pro-Royal people and blogs.

Other than the channel of consumer-generated content, Sarkozy’s Web site relied on videos generated by his staff. Viewers can surf an archived section of Sarkozy’s speeches, all on video. His policy positions are on video. (French actor Jean Reno reads them on video for the visually impaired.) Sarkozy campaigning at events is on video. You can meet Sarkozy’s campaign staff on video. Sarkozy policy advisors countered Royal’s proposed policies on video. Expatriates and well-known French athletes praise Sarkozy on video. Questions from people on the street are answered by Sarkozy on video. Sarkozy even built his own production studio on the first floor of his campaign headquarters, where guests would engage in MacNeil-Lehrer-style debates on video, and all orchestrated by his campaign.

What impressed Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who worked on Gore’s 2000 bid and attended the trip, was how Sarkozy turned his “Web campaign into a video campaign. What the Sarkozy campaign did is have Sarkozy interact directly with you as a Web viewer.”

Sarkozy also embedded his campaign slogan into videos in clever ways. In one video in the Freestyle Zone, an entrepreneur proudly displays a magnum of Champagne that he produced with his friends. Sarkozy’s campaign slogan, “Together everything becomes possible,” is on the bottle.

“That slogan was everywhere—in his videos and on all the literature,” Simmons says. “What we have learned here is repetition counts. Constantly and consistently giving people the same message is the only way to ensure that people will receive it and know what you stand for.”

Perhaps Sarkozy’s greatest success was this emphasis on controlling the message (and, like Royal, bypassing the French media). Among other things, this allowed him to downplay his role as retiring president Jacques Chirac’s interior minister, and to present himself as an outside agent of change.

“This wasn’t the TV cameras of TF1 or the pencils of Le Monde,” Mercer says. “These were his people controlling the cameras and it was a masterful strategy.”

“Sarkozy set out to harness a medium that would allow him to communicate his message in a controlled environment with the least amount of distortion,” Mercer says. “Sarkozy had a script that he had written for the French people. The more populist Royal wanted to write the script with the French people. In the end, people deferred to Sarkozy to lead the way rather than leaning the other way to a participatory democracy and constant engagement.”

The message that American candidates should take away from the Sarkozy and Royal campaigns is one of balance, argues Mercer. “You have to be innovative, but disciplined. One of the lessons from the Sarkozy campaign is you do not have to rely on YouTube to pick up or deliver your message,” he says. “You, too, can own your message.”

Video is already playing a pivotal role in the Internet strategies of American candidates. John Edwards was the first presidential candidate to post a video that directly addressed the viewer to announce his candidacy. Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee for president with a video, as did Hillary Clinton. But no American candidate has embraced Web video to the extent that Sarkozy did.

“Compared to television, this is not expensive or time consuming,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who attended the trip. “[American candidates] should be doing more leading up to a primary because they would get [free media] and it would be effective in getting younger people involved in their campaigns.”

The closest any American contender comes to the 16-video-channel Sarkozy site is in the form of Mitt TV. Romney’s Web site has eight video channels and the campaign plans to move to a 10-channel format shortly, says Stephen Smith, Romney’s director of online communications. Romney, like other U.S. candidates, also posts videos on YouTube, MySpace, AOL and Yahoo.

While the Romney site may be video rich, Smith says the campaign has also focused on fostering interactivity among users. Romney, he says, was the first presidential candidate to participate in YouTube’s “You Choose” spotlight highlighting the 2008 election, where his campaign prepared a 1:05 video of Romney asking viewers what they thought was the single greatest challenge to America and what they would do about it. The video received 71 video responses from viewers and over 1,500 text responses, Smith says. Romney then replied to four users who submitted content. (Clinton has used a similar tactic with her “I Need Your Advice” video on YouTube, where viewers are asked to vote for or submit the theme song for her campaign. She promises not to sing it in public as a clip of her singing the national anthem plays in the background.)

“Online video allows a more personal connection,” says Mindy Finn, Romney’s director of e-strategy. “Mitt Romney is an extremely accomplished candidate, but one who was less well known, so it was extremely important to introduce him to voters and video became an integral part of that strategy.”

Mike Connell, an online political strategist and advisor to the John McCain presidential campaign, views the Sarkozy effort as building on the effect of YouTube in the 2006 U.S. mid-term elections. While he believes that the role of the Internet will gain in importance in political campaigns, he says the change will take place more slowly in the U.S. because the American system doesn’t have the French equal-time rule.

“In the U.S., we have to battle the fact that our political campaigns have been run the same way for the last 45 years, and the [campaign] budgeting follows that,” says Connell, who helped develop, design and manage George W. Bush’s Web sites in the 2000 and 2004 elections. “TV ads and TV production continue to be a major line item. Part of that is the old ‘nothing succeeds like success.’ But at the same time, the Internet is very quickly changing how campaigns are managed and how funds are raised. On the one side, you have the traditional model, of which TV is a prime component. But the Internet is surely and steadily chipping away at that traditional model.”

What Connell says is happening in American campaigns, and what the Sarkozy Internet effort demonstrated, is a shift away from putting up one ad that is used across the country. “We are seeing more video that can be produced quickly and put up quickly,” Connell notes. “It means you need a lot more video, not one message across the entire country. We are moving away from the one-size-fits-all, high-production quality ad that goes out to the masses. There is an increasing need for video that can be parsed into channels so people can go and see the video relevant to them on the issue they care about.”

Connell adds that the McCain Web site is designed around a video window and “the overall online experience is more and more personal, and the sheer volume of video plays right into that.” But he cautions that the 2008 election will not be a case of whoever prepares the most video wins: “Online political strategy is shifting to that personal communications channel and the media production industry needs to respond as well. Being able to foster and build a relationship with your voters individually is becoming more and more important in 2008. My prediction is we will see more reliance on video that will reduce the number of glitzy and polished ads broadcast nationally.”

For Connell, Sarkozy “represents the potential to run and win an Internet-centered campaign. For us not to dissect and study Sarkozy’s victory would be naive. I’m doing just that. It’s a milestone event in the evolution of the Internet, just like John McCain’s [Internet] fundraising in the 2000 election.”

The real challenge for American candidates is to develop an Internet strategy that combines elements of both the Sarkozy and Royal campaigns, says Joe Trippi, a senior advisor to the Edwards campaign who worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. “The campaign you are likely to see in 2008 will combine all that—the message discipline and the ability to use viral media and social networks to move that message around and interact with it,” he says.

Trippi points to Edwards’ “We the People,” a national ad also running on YouTube, as the best example from the Edwards campaign to date of combining message discipline with the power of social networks. The spot features people urging Congress to continue sending President Bush a bill to pull American troops out of Iraq. “President Bush isn’t listening to us,” says one voice in the ad. “It’s time to end the war,” says another. “We the people will stand with you.” The ad is also linked to a pro-Edwards site, supportthetroopsinthewar.com. On YouTube, viewers have cut themselves into the original spot to add their support for ending the war.

“We’re trying to build the Edwards community and all these tools, from YouTube to Facebook to MySpace, are all methods of growing that community online,” Trippi says. “At this point, every single campaign is still underspending on the Web compared with what they will spend on TV. I still think people are putting way too much attention on TV. That is what the French election forces us to recognize.”

The interesting question for Mercer is whether American campaigns can successfully balance control and interactivity. “Control clearly went to Sarkozy’s Web TV and interactivity clearly went to Royal,” Mercer says. “Can control win the day here as it did in France with the appearance of engagement? Or would there have to be a balance of control and real participation? No one knows the answer to that, which is what will make this election very exciting.”