Hypercharging traditional organizing with YouTube

Compare the YouTube pages of the McCain and Obama campaigns, and you’ll also get a glimpse of how very different their strategies are. Both feature 30- and 60-second advertisements, but Obama also offers a wide range of other pieces that include speeches and rallies, calls to action, and, increasingly, videos that support local grassroots efforts.

In other words, McCain’s 300 videos are an extension of his marketing — the “air war.” Obama’s 1,428 videos extend both his “air war” and his “ground war.” Given the Obama campaign’s relatively extensive investment and innovation in this area, we can get a glimpse of the state-of-the-art in weaving together new media and traditional organizing.

I would divvy up the Obama YouTube videos into the following categories:

  1. Advertisements. Frankly, I find these boring transplants from another medium (TV), but some are highly-watched. The long pieces are made-for-Web. Example from McCain: “Chicago documentary,” which attacks Barack Obama as complacent on Latino issues.
  2. “Raw” footage. Videos of Obama, Biden, or surrogates stumping and, in many, audience reaction. These can be quite long, and some are also (surprisingly) well-watched. Example: “A More Perfect Union” a/k/a Obama’s “race speech” (almost 5 million views).
  3. Calls to action. A direct appeal to the viewer to go and do something. Recently, this has focused on registering, voting, and volunteering. Examples: “Come to Ohio,” which invites viewers to head over to volunteer in Ohio; “Vote Early in Ohio,” which asks Ohio citizens to register and vote early.
  4. Instructional video. A simple explanation of how to do something to help the campaign. These recently started showing up. This category blurs a bit with #3, as these pieces are also persuasive. Example: “Phonebanking 101.”

(None of this includes the unofficial videos that are created outside the campaigns, the most famous of which is probably the “Yes we can” music video. More on those media here.)

For traditional grassroots organizers, videos of type 3 and 4 are worth studying. One of the key weaknesses of new media are their apparent inefficacy in getting people to do things in the real world. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom after the collapse of the Dean campaign in 2004. Whether these videos, by themselves, convince people to go and cast an early vote in Ohio remains to be seen.

But these videos do not operate by themselves; rather, it’s pretty clear that some are intended to be wrapped into a traditional grassroots campaign. For example, the “Phonebanking 101” video could be used to help recruit volunteers for a phonebank as well as to train them once they’ve shown up. In other words, these media work hand-in-hand with other tactics — which is quite different than mass-market advertising. Thus, while you might normally measure the effectiveness of a YouTube video by the number of hits it gets, it would be wrong to conclude that the “Color By Numbers” advertisement (11,500 views one day after it was posted) is more useful and successful than the “Come to Colorado” piece (2,964 views over the same period). “Color by Numbers,” at best, might persuade a few people to not vote for McCain (or strengthen their resolve for Obama). The “Come to Colorado” video, by contrast, might persuade people to drive over to volunteer and, in turn, reach out to hundreds, maybe thousands, of voters.

More on how these videos are made, and the significance of that production strategy for grassroots organizing, to come…

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