Consultant Case Study

With all of the talk about the undeniable relevance of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter in the 2008 election cycle, the keen campaign strategist must be careful not to limit the concept of new media to text-based social networking alone. The 2008 Missouri governor’s race is a prime example of the effective use of integrated new media—specifically viral video. Coordinated use of online videos helped secure a record victory in the Missouri governor’s race, changing the state’s executive office from red to blue in a state where, despite intense focus, Barack Obama lost to Republican John McCain on the same ballot.

The size and potential impact of Facebook—the world’s largest social network—are well documented, but that one behemoth should not block out the importance of other critical forms of new media, particularly online videos that, when done correctly, can be spread virally. Imagine a medium that reached half of a target group of voters and where one-third of that overall universe of voters became part of the campaign’s effort, directly carrying a message to other voters. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that among adult Internet users virtually half (45 percent) watched online political videos during the last election. And Pew’s findings noted that one-third of all adult Internet users forwarded online political materials to others during the last election, making viral video a politically deadly weapon in the right hands.

The Missouri Democratic Party, late in the summer of 2008, retained Wright Strategies to engage an aggressive counter campaign against the Republican nominee for governor, Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon’s campaign, managed by Ken Morley, had already engaged an effective online presence including a website, e-mail campaign, Facebook and MySpace pages and a skillful earned media operation. The Show-Me State governor’s race was already rancorous; incumbent GOP Governor, Matt Blunt, dropped out of the race after a rocky and combative start. After Hulshof won the GOP nomination, the objective became a simple one: Keep Hulshof off his game, off message and on the defensive without interfering with the Nixon campaign’s positive message of the attorney general’s vision for Missouri.

Being in a presidential swing state, Missouri voters’ bandwidth for political messages was already being exceeded given online social networking forays by the major candidates. Members of the Missouri media were already bogged down with news releases and press conferences from not only the presidential campaigns, but from local and other statewide candidates, too. The key was to find an innovative new media means to cut through the clutter. Viral videos, integrated with an aggressive earned media effort, were the tool of choice. Doc Sweitzer, a co-founder of The Campaign Group and principal media strategist on the Nixon campaign, understood the fundamental differences between television production and online videos meant to spread virally. Too many campaigns today confuse good television advertisements with good online videos.

Television ads are slick, post-production pieces meant to catch a viewer’s eye for a 30-second window of advertising during the viewer’s program of choice. The length of a viral video is limited only by its ability to hold a viewer’s attention. The very nature of the Internet means at some point the voter must choose to see an online video, so the timeliness and relevance of content to the viewer’s tastes and awareness are far more critical than the slickness of the production value.  

Sweitzer’s TV ads delivered important contrasts between Nixon and Hulshof. The online videos prevented Hulshof from effectively getting his message out on the stump or in earned media, which in turn diminished Hulshof’s fundraising capabilities and drastically restricted his ability to respond to the Nixon campaign’s message.

A key strategy in the viral video campaign was to use the videos to drive earned media coverage, not only of the videos themselves, but also of selected issues in the campaign. Videos were posted repeatedly on newspaper websites and on political news blogs and even aired on the news. But more importantly, they leveraged key issues into the focus of the public dialogue. The news in turn drove news consuming voters online to watch more of the videos, spreading the message even further.

To accomplish this, the viral videos had to generate a critical mass of news value. Timeliness was crucial. When a state party tracker captured relevant footage of the opponent on the campaign trail, it was edited, scored and packaged into a themed video and pushed out rapidly.

Conflict was—and always is—an important factor in determining news value. Whether it was a Hulshof campaign supporter physically getting rough with the state party tracker while the video camera was still running, or the candidate himself getting verbally aggressive with a reporter asking a question, conflict proved a powerful driver in the success of the videos. When Hulshof had discrepancies in the cost of his health care plan, the resulting video focused on the impact of the discrepancies. It featured Hulshof saying his proposal carried a price tag of $50 million and footage from later in the same day of him suggesting it was $60-$70 million. That footage was juxtaposed with the words of his spokesman in an Associated Press interview even later the same day saying it would cost $590 million. The video led the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the state’s largest newspapers, to include in its coverage:

“…this wasn’t the way the Hulshof campaign mapped out their long-awaited health care proposal unveiling, but here’s what happened. … Asked what it would cost this morning, Hulshof said it was in the ‘ballpark’ of $50 million. Pressed after Hulshof stopped taking questions, state Rep. Ed Robb repeated the $50 million figure. Spokesman Scott Baker said to check out the Hulshof website later in the day for more details. The website added $10 million to $20 million in additional costs in ‘tax incentives’ for the insurance program. Then, late this afternoon, when pressed further by Associated Press reporter David Lieb, Baker said the total cost of the program is $590 million. Quite a leap from $50 million. Baker says there was no attempt to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes.”

The Post-Dispatch and the Springfield News-Leader, both posted the video with their online coverage.

Entertainment value was another critical factor in grabbing and keeping the web user’s attention. Each video was scored with its own unique track and made to be visually easy to follow. When the opponent made a claim that Missouri’s business climate was better than four years earlier, despite the massive economic downturn, it was intertwined with footage of Ronald Reagan making his famous statement, “You have to ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That led the Post-Dispatch to post the video to their website, with the headline, “Missouri Dems target Hulshof with help from the Gipper.”

Humor was a big component in keeping viewers entertained. If the opponent was caught off guard with a question on the stump, and left dumbfounded for a minute, it was edited into one of the videos with sound of crickets chirping to emphasize the absence of a response.

To keep potential voters clicking on the videos—and forwarding them on to their friends—the production team made an interesting discovery about production values. Through trial and error, we learned that quality audio—from appropriately composed background music to the clarity of voice in a segment of tracking footage—was crucial for success. But, the opposite held true with video quality. The more successful viral spots had decent, watchable video, but tape that was far below what is used in TV production. The less-than-perfect feeling seemed to communicate an authenticity to grassroots viewership and members of the media.

Fully integrating the new media strategy within the broader campaign maximized the effectiveness of the project. Mini-documentary-style viral videos about constituency groups had to be coordinated with the political outreach and %uFB01 eld organizing components of the campaign effort. Earned media efforts around issue-based ancillary web tools could be coordinated to create the leverage for low-dollar fund- raising appeals. Most importantly, working with ad consultants, the new media effort could introduce issues for the single largest campaign expenditure, TV advertising, or augment the issues in the course of an ad buy.

But that said, a campaign’s online video effort can’t be a subsidiary project of the website or television advertising consultants. By making new media its own focus as an earned media tool and message development tool, it could more effectively interplay with other forms of paid media, political outreach, organizing and even fundraising efforts, maximizing the potential for success.

“The viral video effort was invaluable to the outcome of the race and a great return on investment,” Ken Morley, Nixon’s campaign manager, said after the win. “The content of the videos was effective, but what really made the viral videos count was the way Wright Strategies integrated them with earned media, new media and nearly every aspect of the race.”

It worked in the Missouri governor’s race, securing a 19-point win for Democrat Jay Nixon, the largest victory of any non-incumbent Missouri Governor in 44 years.

Isaac Wright is the CEO of Wright Strategies, which provides comprehensive campaign and issue consulting with an emphasis in strategic communications and new media. He ran the new media effort for the Missouri Democratic Party in 2008.