"The Internet community is wondering what its place in the world of politics is." Howard Dean, 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate, Wired Magazine, January 2004

If the Internet community didn't know what its place in the world of politics was back in 2004, it most certainly does today.

Its "place" is to actively engage politicians and fellow citizens in conversations, promote candidates, help with campaign fundraising and educate other voters about particular candidates and issues—all through the use of new social-media tools that are vital to a candidate's overall marketing strategy.

Consider, for example, the most recent viral marketing sensation on the Web: an inspirational political music video titled "Yes We Can," starring presidential candidate Barack Obama and using lyrics base on a speech he delivered on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

Its popularity (over 13 million views to date) is largely attributed to its authenticity. Acting without any involvement from the Obama campaign, a popular hip-hop artist created the video in an effort to influence voters to choose Obama in 2008, and he opted for the largest online video site, YouTube, as his distribution platform. While the Obama campaign was not involved in the making of the "Yes We Can" video, it actively encouraged Web users to spread it across the Net.

Such citizen participation through social media is playing an important role in the 2008 presidential race and is a markedly different campaign strategy than in 2000 and 2004. In past elections, campaigning on the Web consisted primarily of one-dimensional candidate Web sites featuring a combination of news, biographical information, and online donation functionality.

Today, by contrast, campaigns don't just have a Web presence—they have a Web 2.0 presence. Campaign managers are taking advantage of the Web's recent evolution to a more social and participatory medium (dubbed "Web 2.0") and leveraging new social-media tools such as social networks, blogs, social video sites, embeddable widgets, and more to reach millions of voters and engage them in the political process.

This shift in the political use of the Web from merely meeting voters' informational needs to providing them with community, connections, interactive and participatory features, and viral tools reflects current online marketing practices within the private sector. Consumer brand marketers have been actively experimenting with social-media marketing tactics and learning how they can be used to enhance the marketing communication process and, ultimately, influence consumers.

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Robert F. Hogeboom is principal and owner of BBP Marketing Group. Reach him at Robert@BBP-Group.com.