I worked on my first political campaign more than 20 years ago, and I've worked on local, state and national campaigns. I've worked my share of county fairs and knocked on doors and talked with voters face to face - and there's no doubt that this can be very effective, if what you have to say is relevant and respectful. But with due respect to Mr. Dicket, I think social networks have already made an impact on this election, and not just because Ron Paul can afford to stay in the race thanks to his work online while Sam Brownback can't.
When I go to the local mall, county fair, outdoor market - I can often see the ardent supporters of candidates "tabling" in the flow of traffic - holding their campaign literature, sign at the edge of the table, looking for eyes that are ready to learn more about the person running for State Senate, Congress or even President. You and your friends are there, giving each other moral support as the throngs of people walk by - nary paying attention to you, until a person walks up and says, "So....tell me about Senator X."
Where does this happen on social networks? Can I put up a "table" and engage in a conversation? Where is the flow of people that are milling about that can be "chatted up"? Certainly not on MySpace or many of the other social networks.
There's been an odd undercurrent lately suggesting that social networks are irrelevant to the election at best and harmful at worst. Rubbish. The flaw I see in that sort of thinking is the assumption or expectation that social networks are intended to replace every other form of political activism. Tools don't have to be silver bullets to have utility.
Social networks are critical to campaigns this year for one simple reason - there's an audience there. Candidates would be fools to pass up any opportunity to provide information to any audience, whether it's in person, on TV, in print, or online. We know that informed and engaged people get information from a variety of sources, all of which stay in the background. Social media is unquestionably one of them, and it's trending up.
One other thing: I've seen the lightbulb go on in someone's eyes when you talk with them about a candidate, and it's a great feeling. But my own excitement over working the campaign trail does not a metric make. Let's not confuse the emotions we feel about something with what we know works. It's amazing how many things campaigns do that are deemed critical to success yet the effectiveness of those tactics are never measured.
Do campaigns chart polling data before and after a tv commercial runs to test the effectiveness of an ad, or do they simply say "this tested well with the focus group" of maybe a dozen people and then put it on the air? Do they measure how many contributions are directly linked to running an ad on TV, radio, or in print? Of course not - it's incredibly time and cost prohibitive to tease out data like that. But campaigns still use these tactics, because they know that's where the audience is. Direct mail pieces are probably the most easily measured campaign tactic, and they usually have a response rate of one or two percent at best, yet we still invest millions in them.
It's just about being everywhere the audience is. If a candidate decided to stop going to county fairs, people would notice. If a campaign stopped its ads on tv, people would notice. And if the candidates stopped working online, people would notice. And they wouldn't like it.