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David All Shares Ideas on Emerging Trends for Campaigns and Elections

Founder of online communications and branding firm discusses online technology and strategies for politicians.

David All doesn’t dwell on paper-and-pen-based communication — in 2007, he founded The David All Group, an online communications and branding firm with offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The firm’s early political work earned it a reputation as the first conservative Web 2.0 agency. Now The David All Group focuses on marketing, online development services and campaign management to various corporate clients, issue-advocacy campaigns and professional trade associations.

Previously All served as the communications director for Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston, and developed the website platform that gives supporters tools to become engaged activists for causes. His company has released free tools to help brands (as well as government organizations and the public) understand social media, including
The Essential Guide to Twitter and Pinterest 101.

All shared insight via email into how social media and the public’s mobile lifestyle are changing political campaigns, as well as tips for using popular online platforms.

The conventional wisdom during the 2008 presidential race was that Barack Obama’s campaign did a superior job of leveraging social media, and that it was a factor in his win. Have Republicans caught up on this front?

Republicans haven’t caught up so much as they have ridden the latest wave of anti-incumbent energy. It is always easier for the party out of power to harness that energy. We have gone through enough election cycles now to see that social media tools are David’s slingshot and stones to Goliath’s political might, and whatever Goliath is in the White House is the biggest target.

It’s also important to remember that neither party establishment uses social media tools as effectively as they could. The organic base on either side leads the charge, and the parties ride the grass-roots coattails if they can. Look at all the White House and Democratic Party Twitter hashtags hijacked by conservatives to great messaging effect. That’s not the work of the Republican National Committee.

The shift that still needs to occur is for campaigns and organizations to stop only looking at online as a channel for raising money and begin using it as the central platform for communicating a persistent message.

And how does the Romney campaign’s social media presence compare to the president’s?

Both candidates have mastered the two largest social networks: Facebook and Twitter. Their execution is more muddled on niche but equally valuable channels.

While President Obama’s campaign has an excellent Pinterest strategy, Mitt Romney has let his wife Ann be his sole voice on Pinterest in a transparent play for female voters. By contrast, Mitt Romney’s LinkedIn profile is strong, with each resume point including campaign language, but Obama’s profile looks short and unimpressive.

Both candidates are on Google+, but neither has truly tapped into that channel. And neither candidate has done an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, which is a missed opportunity.

Is there a social media or networking platform beyond the usual suspects — Twitter, Facebook and so on — that politicos are using effectively that we may not have heard of?

These days everyone is gravitating toward Pinterest, and with good reason. The storytelling capabilities of that medium are phenomenal because it emphasizes the visual medium in pictures and videos. But there haven’t been any huge breakout moments yet.

Politicians do need to be cautious on Pinterest because it’s an audience that scorns negativity, but it is a great place for highlighting the lighter side of campaigning.


How is mobility changing the way candidates think about their campaigns?

[Former] Sen. George Allen’s “macaca moment” was a watershed moment six years ago, but few, if any, people had video cameras built into their phones then. The “bitter” sound bite captured at a Barack Obama fundraiser in 2008 confirmed that the game has changed for candidates. Almost every person they meet is empowered with a camera and the ability to share a message, either critical or glowing, in a few minutes to a wide audience.

This has made candidates more pointed and precise in their messages because they cannot afford the “gotcha” stories of today’s “tidbit journalism,” a phrase coined by NBC’s Chuck Todd.

On the flip side, mobile technology creates great opportunities for candidates to humanize their campaigns. They can take pictures and share videos from the road, and they can empower supporters to share special campaign moments of their own. Campaigns have to be smart in how they tell these stories, curating the best of them rather than sharing one and all. But the benefits outweigh the risks for campaigns that employ mobile technology wisely.

Compared to four years ago, more apps are utilizing the geolocation functionality built into smartphones. How are political candidates leveraging geolocation technology for public outreach, campaigning and getting out the vote?

Every time a new app becomes available, campaigns try to figure out how they can use it to advance their candidates. There is far more experimentation using passive location tags on Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram.

Geolocation provides more context to the story of a campaign, whether the candidate is visiting a small-town diner or criss-crossing the country. Candidates can put special moments on a map and share them with local communities. It’s a great way to make all politics local again in a digital age where 1 percent of the vote can be the difference between election and defeat.


Last year you said that traditional websites are obsolete — how should websites change to be relevant and useful?

Candidates have to think mobile-first all the time. Their websites need to be built with mobile viewing in mind because the days of voters going home from an event or rally to look up a website that is a shrine to the candidate are gone.

Campaigns have to get information to voters where they are — on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram — and utilize those networks every day. They also need to be able to raise money on the spot using mobile payment tools like PayPal Here and Square.

What are the keys to online engagement and website socialization?

Effective storytelling is the nucleus of everything. Campaigns need communicators who think like journalists and know how to reach citizens directly without passing content through the media filter. They need to distribute the messages through as many channels as is reasonable — everything from live tweets to long-form stories of Facebook video tabs or on their Facebook timelines.

Campaigns have to stop tasking interns with managing social channels and posting inane messages like “Happy Friday!” That kind of irrelevant content is counterproductive for campaigns that are speaking to well informed constituencies online. There should be no more check-the-box strategies in social and mobile media.

Curation also is a key element of any good content strategy. After using social platforms to create a flag around which supporters gather, campaigns need to showcase the best voices because fans and the ideas they bring to the political discussion are part of the story.

You call yourself a “brand activist.” What does that mean and how should political candidates use technology to leverage that way of thinking?  

In the political realm, anyone with a cause has brand activists. They are the people who believe so strongly in a candidate or an issue that they work passionately to win others to the cause. These people have always existed, but social networks make it easier to identify them, connect them with each other and empower them to fight when warranted.

Once candidates recognize these activists exist, they need to think strategically about how to get the most from their energy. Identify people who can help five minutes a day or one to two days a week versus joining the campaign, and develop a plan around their availability. Reward them for their efforts, and promote their work.

Every campaign should have an “insiders group” on Facebook to keep their most trusted activists interested and informed and to share best practices. Leaders within this group will lead it; organizers will organize; and followers will follow.

We’ve heard that YouTube is the No. 2 search engine behind Google, how are candidates adopting that and other forms of informal communication?

Effective campaigns think outside the TV hanging on the wall. They don’t just repurpose their TV ads on YouTube. They go longer than 30 seconds because the audience will tolerate it. The “Kony 2012” video is an excellent example of long-form storytelling, and candidates should be doing productions like it.

Campaigns also need to appreciate how YouTube works — how to get the most value out of tags; how to write appealing video descriptions; how to build calls to action within their videos; how to organize playlists that attract eyeballs; when to create different channels for different audiences; and how the videos will display on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. YouTube is not a television, and it requires a thoughtful and authentic approach.

But YouTube isn’t the only search tool that warrants campaign attention. Wikipedia is typically the first or second entry found on Google, and six out of 10 journalists see these articles. Candidates need to know what their Wikipedia pages say about them and work with the Wikipedia community to ensure that the reports are fair, accurate and objective.

How do you use social media and informal forms of communication while protecting clients since little comments that once would have flown under the radar now can go viral?

Flood the zone. Be part of the conversation. Candidates can’t be modern ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that communities don’t exist or aren’t talking about them. They need playbooks for empowering others to tell their stories.

Candidates must embrace moments of interest, whether they are positive or negative. Using social media, it’s possible for candidates and their allies to turn any situation into a huge positive opportunity that completely changes the game over a weekend or even overnight.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.