Getting customers to visit your Web site is much tougher than it used to be. The presidential hopefuls have employed a much broader online strategy than just a plain old site, and their actions point the way toward what businesses should be doing to woo and win potential constituencies.
Rather than expecting a Web site to be a destination all by itself, the candidates are employing what I call the "starfish" approach. A starfish has many legs radiating outward from its central core. It uses its legs to move toward its prey, which it will ultimately devour with one of its stomachs. The analogy should be clear. Social media—blogs, text messaging, video, and social networking—are the legs of your online strategy. Your Web site is the belly of the beast, where you convert visitors into customers.
The candidates, to their credit, have been quick to embrace new social technologies to reach constituents, adding legs to the starfish as new technologies emerge. Here are the innovative ways the candidates are employing some of these tools.
Blogs. Mitt Romney effectively uses his (blog.electromneyin2008.com) to get news out, react to other bloggers, and push his audience to other pieces of the starfish, where they can learn more.
Text messaging. Want a young audience? They're on their cell phones. Barack Obama lets you sign up for regular updates via text, as well as text "health," "education," "Iraq," "jobs," or "reform" to 62262 (Obama) to get specific policy updates. Perfect for settling barroom debates about policy.
Video. Text isn't enough when you're making a personal appeal. Check out John McCain's YouTube channel (youtube.com/johnmccain), where debate highlights, TV spots, and town-hall footage let him connect with viewers. For an even more bleeding-edge example, Ron Paul has a streaming-video site (justin.tv/ronpaul) where his team can broadcast live events. Fans can then edit clips and create personal highlights to share.
Photos. John Edwards uses his Flickr photo-sharing site (flickr.com/photos/forallofus) to provide an inside glimpse of the business of campaigning. Supporters can also upload their own pictures, and Flickr's a great host for images you'll link to on your blog or site.
Social networking. Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace are ideal for connecting constituents with one another and mobilizing support. At press time, Hillary Clinton had 49,347 supporters on Facebook.
Tracking. Candidates use tools such as Google Blog Search and other news sites such as memeorandum.com to track what bloggers and journalists are saying about them. Using the other parts of the starfish, they can talk back and answer claims.
How does the starfish work for business? Let's say you're interested in buying a particular car. Don't you want to see lots of pictures? Video? Hear people talking about it? Know what your social network thinks? Do you want to visit a live event where owners gather? If you talk about a particular car on the Web, wouldn't you like someone to contact you and answer your questions? When a Saturn executive wrote me after I blogged about Saturn's cars, it played a role in my buying an Aura.
Attract people into your sphere, entertain or engage them, and then close the deal. And it's not just sales. These tools, along with microblogs such as Twitter, email, and events networks such as Eventful or Meetup.com, can go a long way toward convincing job candidates, especially college students, to become loyal employees.
There will only be one winner in the presidential derby. But all businesses can win by following the contenders.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.