Will Web 2.0 efforts pay off for candidates in today's Iowa caucus?

Candidates are using new technology well for fundraising, but must translate online buzz into votes

Three days ago, Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign launched a new application on the Facebook social network that directs supporters to a page listing members with a connection to Iowa. The application directs Facebook users to urge those friends to the caucus tonight in Iowa, noting that "If they don't come out and support Barack, there's no guarantee he'll be the Democratic nominee."

With tonight's Iowa caucus officially kicking off the election year, Obama and other candidates who have been using new Web 2.0 tools to raise money and galvanize support are kicking their efforts into a higher gear.

But will the number of Facebook "friends" a candidate has amassed or the number of YouTube video views that a campaign tallies really matter in the election? The answer, according to experts watching the first presidential campaign in the Web 2.0 world, is yes and no.

Some candidates -- most notably Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- are using the Internet effectively to translate grass-roots support into successful fundraising. But Paul and most of the other candidates (with the possible exception of Obama) have failed to translate online interest in social networks like MySpace and Facebook into offline efforts to gain votes.

Matt Pace, director of new markets at Boston-based Compete Inc., a firm that measures how the 2.0 efforts of candidates are engaging voters, noted that while Paul "owns the online space, completely trouncing every rival on both sides of the aisle with online activity," he is also polling way behind his rivals.

"It is great to have Facebook friends and MySpace friends that translate into offline activity," Pace said. "The rubber meets the road in what these friends are willing to do for you. Can you really judge that on MySpace?"

Pace added that former Gov. Mike Huckabee in December took a page from Paul's playbook by beginning to accumulate supporters on Meetup, a site that helps groups organize in-person activities. Huckabee "has been able to marshal his evangelical support" into parties and fundraisers nationwide, Pace noted.

As of Jan 1., Huckabee had more than 7,000 supporters listed in Meetup, trailing only Paul's 88,000 Meetup supporters.

But in terms of sheer numbers across the whole Web 2.0 world, Obama leads the presidential pack with more than 204,000 MySpace friends and 172,000 Facebook supporters, far outpacing all the candidates from both parties. On Dec. 31, Obama's campaign tallied 6.6 million YouTube video views, trailing only Paul who pulled in more than 9 million video views that day.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, a site that tracks how candidates and their supporters are using the Web, said that to date Obama has had "the greatest amount of success with Facebook and MySpace in terms of visible supporters." However, he noted that the next few weeks will determine how valuable those big groups really are to the Democratic candidate.

"[Obama's campaign] got in early with Facebook and have designed a pretty good Facebook application that supporters could put on their own pages," he said. "[It] became a channel for the campaign to pump information through," Sifry said.

The Facebook application "might influence a friend to go [to a] caucus," he added. "They are working it," he added. "It may provide a margin of support beyond what they had before."

However, both Facebook and MySpace have limited how successful such campaigns can be because of rules that limit campaign e-mails to 1,000 members at a time, he said.

Christine Williams, professor of government at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., who has researched the effectiveness of online efforts on offline political activity, agreed that Obama has been the most effective in using Web 2.0 tools to translate online activity into offline efforts, like Facebook users encouraging their Iowa contacts to go to the caucus.

Most other campaigns, she noted, might have been able to generate buzz and/or raise money from online efforts but have not been able to translate those projects into getting people to the caucus or to entice them to cast their ballots a certain way, she noted. That stems from the lack of control over the user-generated content and grass-roots efforts that thrive in the Web 2.0 world and the distaste of most campaigns for any projects that limit their control the candidate's message, Williams said.

"There is an inherent contradiction there, and some candidates are beginning to find the balance between giving the grass roots the voice online but keeping some order in the chaos," she said.

But while Paul has been able to effectively use his online supporters to raise money, and he has accumulated a large amount of Meetup supporters, less than half of one percent of those supporters are from New Hampshire, the site of next week's primary, Williams noted. "Ron Paul has a tremendous online presence, but it is mostly from the grass roots, and it at times seems disconnected from the campaign," she said. "It is not being used or leveraged by the campaign. It is its own thing."

TechPresident's Sifry noted that most efforts to incorporate Web 2.0 technology into campaign Web sites have failed because the candidates fear giving up control over their content. "None of the campaigns have developed a really effective, centrally controlled blog," he noted. "Most of their blogs read like press releases. The candidate Web sites themselves have been a huge failure in terms of engaging activists."

Potential activists have been limited to just a handful of activities on candidate Web sites, which has been off-putting for many, he added.

"The campaigns have not for the most part been willing to let go of that speaking in a press release style that is very unengaging," he said. "If you're a potential activist on behalf of a candidate and you feel like you're being channeled very rapidly into one or two fairly narrow roles, there is nothing Web 2.0 about that at all."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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