"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.

With the 2008 presidential race in full swing, brand marketers should start looking more closely at the political realm for creative uses and best practices of social-media marketing. Listed below are three key marketing opportunities for the use of new social media from a political vantage point.

1. Audience Reach

In December 2006, North Carolina Senator John Edwards announced his candidacy for the US presidency, not on national television but on the social video-sharing site YouTube, which has over 50 million US visitors per month.

Other politicians have followed Edwards's example and are now using YouTube to distribute campaign videos in hopes of reaching large audiences and making an intimate connection with them.

As audiences become even more fragmented because of an ever-increasing number of media choices, it is crucial for political candidates and consumer brands to access platforms that reach large segments of a target population. Popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are prime examples of social-media destinations that allow politicians to reach millions of voters and connect with them in a forum of their choice.

A majority of the Democratic and Republican nominees have a presence on these social-networking sites, and their personal microsite pages take advantage of MySpace's and Facebook's ability to reach millions of voters and engage them through the sites' interactive features (see No. 3, below, for more details).

What is potentially even more intriguing for brand marketers are politicians' attempts to reach the electorate through a mobile access solution such as Twitter. This social networking and microblogging service allows users to receive short text updates via multiple sources, including mobile text messaging, from other Twitter users.

Barack Obama, for example, has a Twitter page that keeps fellow Twitter users updated on his campaign. Though he has fewer than 7,000 followers on Twitter, the service has the unique ability to bridge the communication gap between voters and candidates out on the campaign trail. From a consumer brand marketing perspective, Twitter represents a potentially powerful technology for marketers to reach consumers who have opted in to receiving marketing communications through their always-on mobile devices.

2. Viral Marketing

To reach exponentially larger audiences, politicians need more than just a presence on social media sites—they need audiences that will voluntarily share their political content with others, which can then result in its viral distribution.

As a prime example, the Obama campaign is now helping to foster the proliferation of the "Yes We Can" video through Facebook, where on Obama's profile page users are asked to post the video on their own personal Facebook pages for others to view. When this action occurs, an entire user's network of Facebook friends is informed, and viral marketing ensues.

Other presidential candidates are trying to harness the power of social-networking users' "social graph"—the network of connections and relationships among people on a particular site.

The social-media campaign for former Republican candidate Fred Thompson, for instance, included a viral fundraising strategy, which encouraged bloggers and other social-media users to add a small fundraising tool to their online presence. The tool included name and email address fields for visitors of that page to fill out and start the donation process.

Along the same lines, former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani's official Web site included an embeddable news widget that Web users could place on their social media pages. The widget would constantly display up-to-the-minute news stories about Giuliani and his campaign.

By turning social media users into distributors of political content, campaigns can now reach an exponentially larger audience with messages and content—and those messages often have great influence because of their level of consumer advocacy. This concept also applies to the private sector: When brand marketers give consumers compelling social media tools that allow them to spread their enthusiasm for a particular brand, they can reach a significant amount of people on the marketer's behalf.

3. Brand/Campaign Engagement

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Web 2.0 social media is the way it allows users to interact with other people and various forms of media content.

As mentioned above, many of the 2008 presidential nominees have personal microsite pages on the leading social networks MySpace and Facebook. These interactive environments allow voters to become engaged in politics by posting comments, learning about other voters' enthusiasm for the candidate, and associating themselves with the candidate by adding them to their network of online friends.

The importance of providing voters with interactive social-media environments has clearly been taken to heart by Barack Obama's campaign. His ambitious Web 2.0 strategy includes a first-of-its-kind social network called MyBarackObama.com, which is similar to popular "friend-oriented" social networks. This online community allows users to create profiles, blog about the candidate and his viewpoints, send and receive messages with fellow supporters, and more.

This marketing strategy effectively brings both current and prospective Obama supporters together in an influential Web 2.0 environment that is controlled by the Obama campaign.

The Obama social network serves as a great example for brand marketers, who can develop their own brand-hosted Web 2.0 communities to give their customers a place to express their experiences with a brand and a community of consumers with which to share them.

* * *

Politicians have learned from decades of consumer marketing practices. In the last few years, the private sector has introduced the political realm to the power of Web 2.0 social-media marketing.

In today's hypercompetitive election, fueled by multimillion-dollar campaign budgets, politicians are heeding the lessons from the private sector and leveraging various social-media resources and tools to influence voters.

Marketers who are looking to dive into social-media marketing can in turn learn from the political realm's creative and successful applications of this new marketing strategy and should pay close attention to Web 2.0 social-media politics over the next eight months leading up to the presidential election.

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