Category Archives: politics

Google Buzz a Mixed Bag for Political Communications

Google unveiled its new social networking product, Google Buzz, during the second week of February.  This marks Google’s most direct challenge to social networking sites that have proven to be important tools for communications and multimedia sharing amongst its users.

For political communications, Facebook and then later Twitter, have become important tools in both national and local electoral politics.  These social media sites allow for deeper engagement between campaigns and their supporters, enables increasingly scaled multi-way conversations and are excellent organizing tools.

How will Google Buzz fit in to this mix of social media sites already running and how will Buzz be integrated into political communications?

The buzz about Buzz going around blogosphere is now centered around the lack of sensitivity to Google and Gmail users’ privacy concerns.  Google may have made a huge mistake when it automatically brought users into one’s Buzz network without their permission.  Internet privacy advocates are having a field day with this.  But as with most everything Google, the company is listening and trying to correct its errors.

As a social network, I see the biggest advantage of Google Buzz being its integration into other Google software.  For example, in the last year, I have gotten away from my activity on Facebook and have moved much more heavily into email.  It’s not so much a conscious decision on my part, but simply a reaction to the amount of emails I receive daily necessitates my attention get paid to my inbox.  Therefore, having the Buzz tab next to my Gmail inbox is highly convenient.  Not to mention, Buzz syncs up with YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Google Reader, Google Chat, etc. very seamlessly.  On top of that, Buzz seems to be a pretty clean and easy designed app.

Google Buzz’s downside may be that it’s too connected to one’s email.  I think many Facebook users like the idea of having a personal network on Facebook unconnected to their email.  I can understand that.

As a political tool, we shall see how Google Buzz gets used and if campaigns will utilize it in the 2010 cycle.  I think it will provide a new way to bring in a lot of engagement to a campaign and communicate in a new and possibly easier fashion.  As someone who works on campaigns, the thought of having email and social networking contained in one interface is very attractive.  In fact, I would venture to say at the moment that Google Buzz stands to assist campaigns to communicate with key activists and volunteers in a deeper and more personal way.

For example, beyond non-Google web apps, I see a lot of value in being able to have Google Docs and Google Calendar be a part of Google Buzz and at the fingertips of campaigns and volunteers in a single medium.  That could prove very valuable.  I, for one, would be willing to give it a try.  I believe it will aid in multi-way communication better than Facebook at this point as Facebook has become another broadcasting tool for campaigns.  If the privacy issue can be resolved and users of Google Buzz can have better control of who is able to tap into a given network, Buzz can be a very useful tool.

The 2010 Democratic Primary Best and Worst Communications Spin Job

The Dan Hynes-Pat Quinn race for the Democratic Gubernatorial nomination produced one of the most interesting communications stories of the 2010 primary race.

By now, we’re all familiar with the Hynes’ Campaign ad showing Harold Washington discuss his regret hiring Pat Quinn in the 1980’s, pointing to Quinn’s incompetence.

The message was pretty hard to argue with – coming straight from Democratic and progressive icon Harold Washington’s mouth that Pat Quinn is unqualified to handle budgetary matters.  At first, it helped to bring Hynes up in the polls with Quinn.

But then something remarkable happened.  To the Quinn campaign’s credit, the Governor was able to turn the Washington ad into an issue of race and M achine politics where Dan Hynes and the Hynes family stood on the wrong side of that debate.  This was a good and pretty predictable response from the Quinn camp.

The Hynes response to this was deeply flawed.  Hynes could have distanced himself from the Quinn attacks, stating his father’s politics was ancient history and that his father was not running against Pat Quinn.  He could have voiced disagreement with the race wars of the 1980’s and Tom Hynes’ role.

Instead, Hynes fell off message, defending his father and allowing Quinn to shift the conversation that previously focused on job performance to a much more emotionally-charged issue of race.  There was no doubt that Quinn worked for progressive candidates and causes and he was able to use the Hynes attack to his advantage to demonstrate solidarity with minorities and middle class voters.  The message completely escaped Hynes.

The timing of course was critical.  This all took place a few weeks before Election Day.  Leading in to this period, a candidate wants to be focused on their message.  The Hynes defensiveness was very costly communications hiccup.

Schakowsky Takes a Pass on Senate Seat, Impacts other Elections

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9) announced today that she is forgoing a run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama, now occupied by the blighted Roland Burris.  In a video announcement she told viewers she would stick with House seat and continue serving the various leadership positions she reeled off.  Showing great humility, Rep. Schakowsky even said that she would have no problem raising close to $30 million she thinks it would take to win the primary and the general election for the Senate seat.

Given that Schakowsky is now out of the race, Ramsin Canon at Gapers Block points out this leaves State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (and his Bright Start mess) as the only Democrat who has decided to run.  Chris Kennedy of the Merchandise Mart is the other big Dem still left undecided.

Schakowsky’s entrance in the Senate race would have caused a ripple effect impacting so many elections.  No doubt a host of names, possibly various state reps and state senators, would have stepped up for the 9th District seat.  Those elected officials who would have subsequently thrown their hat in the ring would see various candidates or other local elected officials bid for their state seats, and so on.  Clearly, Schakowsky’s decision not to run for Senate saved a lot of election activity.

But is that a good thing?  Schakowsky has served for 10 years in her seat and her predecessor served 48 years in that seat.  I question whether it is keeping with progressive values for one person to dominate a single elected congressional seat for so long.  Nobody will challenge, let alone defeat Schakowsky, as long as she stays continues to serve and run for that seat.

Maybe it would have been a good thing if Schakowsky tried her luck for the US Senate.  Here in state politics, the Illinois Reform Commission has put forth a proposal on term limits.  That was largely rejected by Illinois state leaders.  But many in Illinois support the commission’s position that term limits are a good thing for a health democracy.

Progressivism, which I’ve discussed before and which is a term I believe has been hijacked from its original meaning, is something that Schakowsky has self-annointed.  True progressivism is a belief in accelerated change and more direct democracy.  But with one person serving in a seat for so long, that reality seems at odds with progressive values.

More Chicago Corruption

West Side Alderman Ike Carothers and a local real estate developer were indicted today by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.  Carothers is accused of receiving $40,000 worth of home improvements from developer Calvin Boender in exchange for Carothers re-zoning an area in his ward that netted Boender $3 million.

There seems to be two stories happening here.  One, is that Patrick Fitzgerald seems to be Illinois’ savior when it comes to rooting out the Illinois’ cancerous corrupt politicians.  Carothers is just the latest in a string of high-profile indictments.  And unlike other US Attorneys, Fitzgerald is not aiming at well-known figures to inflate his own ego.  As Springfield bargains and waters down real political reform measures this week before its recess, Fitzgerald is running past our legislature to fight corruption.

Second, Carothers gained much notoriety when he made it his mission to skewer then-recently appointed Police Chief Jodi Weiss.  Weiss was no doubt humiliated and many could say that Carothers’ attack could also be interpreted as an attack on Mayor Daley, who appointed Weiss.  As Daley now faces his own criticisms about less than transparent practices regarding parking meters and Midway Airport leasing, the Carothers indictment can viewed as somewhat as a vindication for the Mayor.  After all, when the Mayor’s critics get that kind of attention and embarrassment for their own corrupt practices, certainly the heat shifts away from their political targets.

Scare Tactics Work

Watching the drama unfold at the Cook County Board yesterday was like watching a bad, predictable sitcom.

County President Todd Stroger wasted no time in stooping to the lowest common denominator.  He diverted attention away from the sales tax hike by making yesterday’s a vote a referendum on North Side v. South Side, black v. white, rich v. poor, the haves vs. have-nots, etc.

Not that Stroger received overwhelming support – 11 of 17 commissioners voted to overturn the tax increase.  But, his framing of the issue was enough to win the day.  I guess Commissioner Debora Simms quoted as saying, “this is about the haves vs. have nots” (she representing the “have nots”) does not offend her constituents.  Ironicaly, her very rallying cry to support the tax is a slap in the face to the people in her own district!

That aside, it’s important here to see how powerful fear drives policy.  Stroger’s doomsday rhetoric of what the county would look like without the tax helped push him over the edge with a key vote or two, including Commissioner Mario Moreno, who switched his vote twice.  By invoking fear, Stroger forced key votes by commissioners who did not want to appear responsible for the likely attack by tax supporters that the county healthcare system would suffer.

Well, the same sort of scare tactics are working in Springfield, albeit in a different way.  Governor Pat Quinn has laid out his doomsday scenario for Illinois’ budget.  In all fairness, Illinois’ fiscal situation is much more dire than the County’s.

However, it seems to work.  When Quinn first talked of raising state income taxes by 50 percent, he was met with a chorus of opposition.  Fast forward several weeks later and talk about all the state services ceasing if the state can’t raise revenue is not provoking legislators to speak up quite as loudly.  Whether there is no room to cut the budget at the state level or not, there simply has been no alternative to Quinn’s ideas presented in a serious way.

Fear is winning the day.

Could Stroger Actually Win Re-election?

It seems the odds are stacked against Todd Stroger to win re-election.  The litany of antics and policy that has incensed Cook County voters, such as the sales tax increase and the nepotistic hiring practices, would all seem to suggest voters are fed up.

Stroger’s chances seem so dim that even the racially-motivated voting patterns of the city do not seem to line up in favor with Todd Stroger, considering that Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (an African American representing the Hyde Park neighborhood) has announced her intention to run for the County Board presidency.  Russ Stewart highlights the ins and outs of how voting will potentially break down in the 2010 election for board president.

How could Stroger be competitive given the popular misgivings about his taxation and governance policies and the regular media thrashing he receives?

Well, Stroger may be competitive if he plays his message correctly.  One thing we know for sure is that Stroger is not below playing to voters’ sympathy for poor Todd.  He regularly blames the media for unfairly attacking him and making him the scapegoat for all the County and City’s problems.  That carries some weight considering the regular lambastings he receives from the major dailies.

Plus, I doubt that Stroger is unaware that he was elected with sympathy running high for his father’s illness during the 2006 election that helped Todd’s victory.

I will predict that Stroger plays both the sympathy and the race card very hard.  Those are the two strengths of his message because his record certainly hardly appeals to anyone.  He will use his staffer who liases with churches to work the African American church-going community, he will rely on traditional Stroger African American strongholds and he will pit Toni Preckwinkle as not representing the concerns of the African American community.

Plus, he actually has a chance to gain sympathy from voters because the media is, and will continue to be, relentess in their criticism of Todd.  That will be plain to voters and Todd will try to play on those emotions.

In the end, he should fall short to Forrest Claypool as Russ Stewart predicts.  But, he will put up a stronger fight than most predict.

Web Analyitcs Key to Any Online Communications

If there’s one major takeaway from the Obama Campaign, it’s that good data in public affairs – and knowing how to act on it –  leads to greater efficiencies and conversion success.

I had the pleasure of moderating a talented panel last week at the Politics Online Conference that featured:

Dan Siroker, founder of Carrotsticks, and led the analytics team for the Obama Campaign.  He later served as the Deputy Director of New Media for  He shared some great insights into understanding what users are doing on a campaign website or how they react to to email can assist political campaigns at all levels.

Mark Skidmore, director of advertising and promotion at BlueStateDigital, focuses on search, banner, social media and online advertising for public affairs clients.  During the 2008 election cycle he directed ad strategies for over 10 PACs and 501c3s, including the Presidential Inauguration Committee, Wal Mart Watch and others.

Matt Yalowitz from the Googe Election & Advocacy Team.  He’s a Chicago local campaign veteran now working in Ann Arbor who brought some great insights into search and search advertising.

Siroker led the Obama analytics team of six people who he said “helped to optimize everything,” including emails, donation and MyBarackObama.  He shared five major lessons learned from the campaign:

  1. Understand the user funnel – visits, sign-ups, donations and conversions.
  2. Focus on the weakest link. Before the Iowa caucus, the weakest link in the campaign was getting email sign-ups.  The analytics team experimented with flash pages that rotated three images, four videos and five sign up buttons.  The team found that images were more effective than videos.  After the tweaking, the campaign received 4.4 million new email submissions.
  3. Segment into friends. Split the database into meaningful subsegments.  Depending on who the person on the receiving end of the communications was, they would receive different messages, like “donate and get a gift,” “donate now,” “please donate,” “contribute,” etc.
  4. Circumstances matter. When Sarah Palin knocked community organizing in her RNC speech, Campaign Manager David Plouffe’s email that night received the largest one-day donation response in any day during the campaign.  Know when the right circumstances arrive and take advantage of them.
  5. Assumptions are wrong. Question them, test them and then test them again.

Mark Skidmore focused his remarks on how to drive people to a public affairs website.  Search, he said, is central to any web strategy.  Eighty percent of new traffic comes through search.  It’s important to conduct a search strategy that puts an organization out in front early and often.  That’s the best way to see results and reach some efficiencies.

When developing web content, it’s also important to have a long-term strategy that organizes content well.  A campaign can adjust by seeing what content gets the most hits and promote that to the front page and see how it does with other content around it.

He concluded with urging people to get outside the data as well.  You have to take a holistic approach to a web strategy that includes looking at data and looking at it from 10,000 feet above ground too.

Yalowtiz discussed the difference between micro and macro conversions.  Macro conversions are voluntary sign-ups or donations.  Micro conversions are more granular data, like how much time a user spends watching a video, time on a site, page views, etc.  He said this distinction is important because otherwise, analysts would be drawing conclusions based on 10-15 percent of conclusions.

Campaigns, Yalowtiz said, should be integrating their web strategy with traditional media.  Unique tracking codes, phone numbers and splash pages can help put the right metric on conversions and see the effectiveness of an integrated campaign.  Furthermore, different splash pages and 800 numbers can be used for different geographies.

I started the Q&A asking about page views because some say that the longer a user stays on a page the better, while others argue it may mean that a user can’t find what they’re looking for.

Siroker said that overall, web users’ attention spans are short.  An analyst has to look at the average time a user spends on the site to get a good idea of what  long or short page views mean.  Overall, multiple pageviews are good.

Skidmore urged people to examine how many clicks before conversion.  That average will give analysts a better understanding of how content effects conversions.  It’s important to strike the balance between poking around a website and conversions.  He argues five steps to conversion is a too high an average.

Furthermore, Skidmore urged people not to use Flash because that is not read by search engines and therefore hurts a web page’s SEO.  Google only reads HTML.  Building a site map is important to helping SEO, on the other hand.

Yalowitz talked about creating a pattern that users can go through that will lead to conversions.

Finally, here’s some great pointers from the panel.

  • Questions to ask SEO experts:
    • Where are visitors coming from?
    • What does my architccture look like?
    • Are the incoming links to my website quality?  How can I improve the quality?
  • Make issues work against each other on the site
    • Silo them and find out which works better.  Promote that to the top of your page
  • Worried about investing in a good website and analytics?
    • Focus on ROI – $x will bring a return of $x donations, emails, etc.
    • Look at the most successful month(s) what were you doing during those months?
  • Geo-Target Message
    • Not everyone receives the same message.  Talk to people about issues that matter to them.

The Next Generation of Election Websites

Here are highlights from another great panel at the Politics Online Conference, which probed the evolution of campaign websites and captured what we have learned.

Republican Strategist Rob Kubasko began with an entertaining brief history of online campaigns.

1996 – all about having a website

2000 – proved that donations could take place via the web in a big way (McCain)

2002- the “kitchen sink” syndrome of cramming everything into a website

2004 – the buzz is about blogs and communities

2006 – enter online video, a la the George Allen moment

2008 – the year of social networks

Kubasko put it simply that campaign success starts with messaging, is advanced by design and is driven through online tools.  I liked one line he said about design: “If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.”  It’s like the old adage in branding that if you’re about everything, you’re about nothing.

Sam Graham Felsen, who served as chief blogger at the Barack Obama Campaign and came over from the traditional journalism world (the Nation), said the big winner for the campaign was the least sexy tool…email.  It alone was the leader in generating offline actions.

Sam Graham Felsen

Sam Graham Felsen

Meanwhile, he talked about the message strategy of the campaign from the outset that emphasized less about the candidate and more about people and building a movement around the values the candidate embodied.  He recalled that the majority of his blog posts at the beginning of the campaign were not about Obama, but about people around the country who wanted and hoped for change.

Plus, this message, Felsen said, was made that much more poignant through online video.  The Obama campaign had a videography team that shot and edited like 2,000 videos and got as a granular as creating videos for every Obama affinity group imaginable.  That was very helpful in story telling and giving a medium for people to relate to the campaign’s values.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Nicco Mele reiterated the importance of email, saying that in a recent talk at Harvard, David Plouffe said he wished he sent more email (to the astonishment of many who were flooded with Obama emails during the campaign).  A very smart thing Nicco said afterwards was that Dominos Pizza could have managed its crisis so much better had it collected customers’ emails and therefore had a direct channel to its target audience .

Mele’s key takeaways from 2008:

Video proved a transformative medium in message delivery

Organizing means better data collection and management

Good fundraising means good email lists and copy

Headed to the Politics Online Conference

I’ll be back at the Politics Online Conference in Washington, DC this weekend and early next week.  The conference is put on by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University and is being co-sponsored this year by Campaigns & Elections magazine.

I found out about the conference last year, after I interviewed the Institute’s Director Julie Germany, for a research project I was doing on the confluence of the social web and public affairs for my master’s program.  Julie encouraged me to nominate some work I had done for Daniel Biss’ campaign for state assembly and sure enough we won two awards, known as the Golden Dot Awards, at the conference.  By the way, Julie is the most consistently funny and entertaining Twitter user I have ever seen.  Anyone looking to do Twitter right, should see how she does it.

So, I’m headed back to the Politics Online Conference this year.  I will be moderating a panel for one of the conference’s many interesting breakout sessions, called:

Tinkering Your Web Strategy: Using Analytics to Understand Your Traffic and Making Adjustments

April 21, 3:30 p.m., Meridian D & E

Description: Who is coming to your candidate’s website? What do users do when they get there? How did they find you in the first place? Where are users who visit your site coming from?

Web analytics can open doors to a political or public affairs campaign to understand their web traffic and adjust their communications strategy accordingly. Having a great website with all the bells and whistles looks great on the surface. But, how do we read a web analytics report and what indicators do we look for? How do we make adjustments? Answers to these questions are vital for campaigns at any level.

·        Ben Weisberg (Account Manager on the Elections and Issue Adcocacy Team at Google)

·        Mark Skidmore (Blue State Digital)

·        Dan Siroker (Founder of CarrotSticks)

·        Jesse Greenberg (independent strategic communications and public affairs consultant)

I’ll be blogging on conference highlights next week and at the conclusion of Sunday’s e-democracy unconference.

April 7 Election Day, Looking to Fill Quigley’s Seat

I just returned from a trip to Israel and I’ve certainly come back at an interesting time!  The awaited culmination to the IL-5 race to replace Rahm Emanuel is here (along with many interesting local races).  Plus, it’s the start of baseball season, which during the week of Passover and Easter, is truly the sign that spring and rebirth is upon us.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Source: Chicago Tribune

Thanks to Progress Illinois, and other local bloggers, I’ve been kept in the loop on what is happening in the IL-5 race and who might replace Mike Quigley on the Cook County Board assuming he wins today.

Greg Hinz at Crain’s goes down the list of potential appointees, who local Democratic Committeemen will be choosing among as Quigley’s successor this coming weekend.

While there are some very good candidates on that list, I’m struck at the centralized authority given to the local Democratic Machine to choose who they want on the County Board.  The Board’s reputation is not exactly squeaky clean, with reformers, independents and good governance board members few and far between.  That being said, I hardly see the committeemen choosing who they want to fill the Board opening with someone that will be best for the Board and County residents and not best for local committeemen’s interests.

I know this is the process and to change the process will be a herculean task unto itself.  But, we may be able to start somewhere.  If not in this appointment, then in similar situations arising in the future.  We can start by simply having a member of the community create a poll or website where residents can register their name and zip code and select amongst a list of known contenders.  People’s identities can be protected and only the results could be published.  This would provide a benchmark to measure local residents’ sentiment as to who they want to see in open government seats and to at least begin to start holding those tasked with appointments accountable.

I think this will be a good basis to not only let committeemen know who voters want to see appointed, but for voters to see that when committeemen are placing people in office who will do what they say at the detriment to what voters want, they have the first step in holding them accountable.  Hopefully, that accountability will be a good starting point to getting local voters agitated enough to create a more transparent process than leaving filling vacant seats up to the local Machine.