What the Obama factor means for websites

The uses made of the online medium during the recent US presidential election campaign confirm some things we knew about the web but change our understanding of others, says David Bowen.

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The role of the internet in the US elections will be chewed over for a long time, and will generate PhD thesis upon PhD thesis. I’m not going to be writing one, but I have got some thoughts.
The starting point is that the website itself is not that important. In the years I’ve been following the web I’ve noticed how poor political sites are, and I think I know why. Politicians like snappy messages that everyone sees, which is why television and billboards are the obvious media for them. Websites are useless. They like to provide detail, lots of words, lots of interactivity: you cannot put ‘Yes we can’ in big letters across a computer screen and expect people to absorb the message.
So instead the respective sites of the candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain (johnmaccain.com), had detailed sections on ‘issues’ that were worthy but just a little dull.
Furthermore, you don’t drive past websites or see them in the middle of your favourite soap opera: you have to look for them. And why would you if there is nothing much interesting there?
The best bits on the sites were the videos, which shows that the extended web – the online world you do not control – is far more important than the site itself. Look at Mr Obama’s victory speech: it has a YouTube logo at bottom right, and I suspect that the majority of its 3.3 million viewings up to Tuesday (11 November) have been on youtube.com or on other sites or blogs. Not on barackobama.com.

New takes on the blog

In our last newsletter I described how the extended web works. I also identified three quite different types of blog, which I thought was a lot. I was wrong: the election campaign has led me directly to two further classifications of blog and indirectly to a third.
First, there are professional blogs – ones not written by the blogger but on his or her behalf. It’s not surprising that presidential candidates have had better things to do, but I was a little amazed to see that there is a blog “for staff on the New Media team at Obama for America headquarters”. In other words, there is a blog for Mr Obama’s bloggers.
John McCain didn’t write his own blog (at johnmccain.com, though no longer running): it was largely written by Michael Palmer.
Slipping a little down the celebrity slope, we come to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t seem to go near her blog – most of the posts are by Karina Newton, her ‘director new media’.
Does this matter? Well, I would have said that part of the definition of a blog is that it personal – that is surely what gives it much of its appeal. But the lack of Obama on the Obama blog seems not to have done much damage – some posts got more than 1,000 comments.
I think, though, that Mr Obama is a little different from other people. Certainly from Ms Pelosi. Her blog is dry as dust and has almost no feedback – you can get away with one or other of those but not both: have a look at my last article to see why.
Oh good, here’s The PalinDrome, Sarah Palin’s blog, written by herself in her own folksy style. Except it’s not by her at all (at least I hope it isn’t). So here’s the second new type of blog: the spoof. It is damaging, but could her people have done anything about it? Well, they might have created something even better and made it utterly attractive to Google. Not good that a search for ‘sarah palin blog’ puts The PalinDrome in the top slot.
I wondered how famous you have to be to make a blog you don’t write yourself successful. Think of someone famous, very famous. Think of David Beckham. His ‘official’ site has a blog and it appears to be written by him. I don’t think it is, though. Apologies if I’m wrong, but I suspect that this is a third type: the ghosted blog.

Yes, you can too

What relevance does this have to people in charge of corporate or organisational web estates? The good news is that for you, your website is much more important. You want to give people detail and you can control what happens to it.
But the power of the video, and particularly YouTube, is worth pondering. This is a forceful way of spreading your message if you make it engaging enough – though it is also a frighteningly good way of losing your reputation.
On blogs, simply this: don’t try to do an Obama or a Beckham, because you will probably do a Pelosi. If you want a blog, write it yourself. General Motor’s vice-chairman Bob Lutz writes many posts in the GM FastLane Blog, and they are the ones that get the feedback. He’s a powerful person, he writes good copy, and that’s what makes the blog work.

First published 12 November, 2008
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