As politics finds new mediums, local firms are along for the ride

October 27, 2008

When cell phone users who have questions about Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign send queries to Carmel's ChaCha Search Inc., they get factual responses independently researched by one of the company's 33,000 human guides. They also see paid Obama advertisements at the bottom of their answers. Those who click the ads are linked directly to his campaign.

"We were approached by the Obama campaign. They've got a big ad budget," said ChaCha President Brad Bostic. "That particular campaign is targeted to that 18- to 25-year-old demographic. So the match was particularly good."

In this year's election cycle, the policy watchword is "change." But amid the partisan debate, another type of change is revolutionizing the way candidates track voters and spread messages. Communication tools like text messaging, social networking and YouTube are increasingly integral to successful politics.

And smart Indiana businesses are capitalizing.

Obama isn't ChaCha's only political client, Bostic said. Los Angeles-based Rock The Vote, a nonpartisan organization that aims to increase young voters' turnout at the polls, also hired ChaCha. Text an inquiry about polling locations or how to register and ChaCha will respond in cooperation with the not-for-profit.

Not all politicians have caught on, Bostic said. And efforts to innovate sometimes fizzle. But overall, early adopters enjoy enormous results.

"It's almost like a massive virtual rally that never stops," he said. "Like with anything new and cutting-edge, there's always a fair amount of experimentation that has to happen. You have to try a lot of things and think about what works."

Engaging voters

Political observers and technology gurus give Obama the highest marks for leveraging new ways of communicating.

Obama's Indiana spokesman, Jonathan Swain, said the campaign was able to organize last week's last-minute downtown rally and communicate its details to the faithful within hours thanks to the enormous database Obama built during this year's prolonged Democratic primary election. An official count isn't available, but most reports estimate the campaign's national database includes 3 million to 6 million e-mail addresses.

"From my perspective, this technology has really allowed our grass-roots organization to have a bigger reach," Swain said. "Sustaining excitement is key to keeping people engaged and keeping urgency high."

Tech-savvy candidates like Obama enjoy an unprecedented ability to send targeted messages. Swain noted that when the Obama campaign sends a text to addresses in its Indiana database, it regularly adds Indiana details to the broad economic plans he discusses on the national stage. His messages specify the 42,000 jobs he promises for Hoosiers and the Indiana infrastructure investments he'd prioritize.

Republicans also recognize the political power of new technologies. Scott Dorsey, CEO of locally based e-mail software firm ExactTarget, said Gov. Mitch Daniels has been a client since before his 2004 campaign. This year, ExactTarget's former vice president of corporate strategy, Kristen Brown, left to become eCampaign adviser to Sen. John McCain.

Dorsey is a true believer in the power of information technology. These days, speeches and campaign commercials are instantly available on YouTube. And some candidates, like McCain and Obama, have built popular internal social networking sites in addition to having a presence on public platforms like MySpace.

Technology's downside

But Dorsey said candidates are only beginning to understand that technology comes with risks. This summer, Obama orchestrated the announcement of his vice presidential running mate via mass text message. Joe Biden's name leaked out online first and rapidly reached traditional news outlets, disappointing the cell phone users who'd signed up specially for the revelation.

The biggest dangers, Dorsey said, are in overusing new technologies. It's all too easy to flood users with unwanted messages. That could happen if a candidate shared his or her database with another candidate from the same party.

"If somebody gives permission to receive messages about Obama, that doesn't mean they want all Democratic messages," Dorsey said.

On the other hand, he said, modern IT can give officials unprecedented insight into voters' priorities--if it's used judiciously.

"Social networks are likely to live on after the campaigns. They're all about conversation and dialogue. This was an entry point," Dorsey said. "It will be interesting to see it evolve over time. It's not so much about, 'Use these technologies to get elected then shut off the funnel of communication,' but instead, how to continue to further communication once elected."

There are two keys to political success online, said Chris Baggott, CEO of local startup Compendium Blogware: Establish your presence early and update it often. Search engines like Google calculate response rankings using algorithms that consider both a Web site's vintage and the frequency of its updates. Baggott has been counseling his political clients to set up blogs and post frequently, so their messages climb to the top of search results.

Otherwise, Baggott said, it's all too easy to be overwhelmed online. He noted the incident this spring, when Obama's remarks about guns and religion at a small San Francisco fund-raiser came back to haunt him in Appalachia, and nearly cost him the Democratic primary. The comments were captured and posted by a blogger.

"One guy with a cell phone changed the dynamic of an election," Baggott said. "That's democracy, baby."

Still knocking on doors

IUPUI political science professor Brian Vargus said politicians in Indiana below the gubernatorial level are using surprisingly little new technology. Basic Web sites are standard, he said, but local candidates still rely primarily on shoe leather. That'll change over the next four years, he predicted, now that the cat's out of the bag.

"Campaigns are not going to go back. They never do. They always go forward," Vargus said. "By 2010, they'll all have it down."

But professor Richard Edwards, who teaches media arts and sciences at Indiana University's School of Informatics, said there could be a backlash if McCain upsets Obama. If that happens, the conventional wisdom will be that tried-and-true tactics of conventional campaigns still trump modern IT.

"This election is going to be one the political scientists and new-media specialists will pore over," Edwards said. "The question is whether or not these techniques are effective, or if this is the latest example of new-media hype."

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