Friday, 30 April 2010

Why would I want to be in your group?

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with some colleagues about the relative merits of Facebook groups as a component of a campaign. We'd all worked for clients who expected to Group to be generated for their campaign, yet I suspect each of our clients would have struggled to articulate why this was a good thing.

As strategists it is always worth asking ourselves the question "What is the worth of this?" when considering any activity. A clear strategic goal should sit at the core of all your activity, and all roads should lead there. If it is determined at the outset that a Facebook (or any other type of social networking) serves that goal it should be pursued with full vigour. However, if it is being done in order to use a shiny new tool for no reason other than the joy of doing it, then it should not be done.

I've worked repeatedly with local activists who maintain Facebook groups and have seen some fantastic activity generated by them. I've also been asked to create them myself and generate activity though them. As a political professional I think there needs to be a clear dividing line, one that shouldnt be crossed. My role, in my own eyes, is to help motivated local activists do things better, not replace activists in the equation. A group with my name as the founder is no way near as useful as with John Smith's name.

Really, what I'm addressing hereis a wider failure to understand the importance on a strategic underpinning to all activity. Its a human failing, one I'm occasionally guity of, that we get distracted by the new and interesting above and beyond what is effective.

It's also easy to assume that because something worked well in one scenario it'll work in all similar scenario's. Again Facebook groups provide us with a good point of reference to this. Groups work well in many grassroots campaigns, so they are often used, but small differences can utterly wreck their utility. What if the people who you want to influence arent regular internet users? What if the person running the group isnt motivated or credible?

I'm a huge advocate of social media, but I will strongly urge any client to consider why they want to use it. The effort to create a large group will increase enormously if there is not a useful constituency in existance. I often scout around online and see if there are groups already either for or against the particular cause I'm interested in. Even if there's only a group working against you, it indicates that there is a debate, which implies a constituency of supporters.

At its heart social media is no more or less useful then a 1950's style leaflet through the door, its simply a new medium of communication. A faster and more interactive one to be sure, but not fundamentally better.

The power is in the way it is used, if used correctly social media can affect substantial change. It can form a hub around which all other activity can be arranged.

Or it can be a few hundred people who join up and never look at the issue again.

Be strategic, don't assume the internet is better, learn when it is better and use it to its full potential.


Thursday, 29 April 2010

Something to consider

As 'bigotgate' (A term which I personally loathe, along with all other 'gate' derivitives) rumbles on something occured to me. I noted in one of the papers that Brown was supposed to spend yesterday sequestered away doing debate preperation, and instead was travelling back and forward across the country and being trapped in someones living room for 40 minutes.

Brown has come resolutely last in the first and second debate, and that was with substantial amounts of preperation with his inner circle, and that was at a time when he was under 'normal' amounts of pressure. For a given value of normal. This time theres a wildly hostile press, and an increasingly hostile public, millions of whom share the opinions of yesterday's victim.

So, Brown approaches the debate tonight with far less preperation than he would normally want and under exceptional amounts of pressure due to one of the worst gaffes of modern UK history.

It remains to be seen how Brown deals with this and whether the lack of preperation is reflected in his performance. It will also be interesting to see if either of his opponents seek to raise it during the debate. His infamous anger will be lurking below the surface and an outburst on stage will do yet more damage to the campaign.

My personal prediction is that this debate will be the most interesting of the three, all the candidates are under serious pressure to give a good performance to distance themselves from the pack. With all the polling suggesting a hung parliament is inevitable there's everything to play for.


Dammit Microsoft

I haven't even managed to write up your last platform and you've released yet another toolkit. Microsoft have in the words of techPresident:

"...launched a state-by-state directory of the social media accounts of public officials and agencies at the local and state level."
I will definately catch up with all this stuff soon. There's just been too much election malarky going on for me to focus on this.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

For the polling geeks

If, like me, you find polling interesting you should take a look at the fascinating statistical analysis being done by Nate Silver on the UK election.

Nate is credited with having accurately predicted 49 out of 50 states in the USA in the last election and has an excellent reputation. Whether he's able to pick up the nuances of the UK system, who knows, but the model seems to make sense to me.

Rather than working on universal swing Silver's model works on the shifting pattern of voters between all three parties, based on their 2005 results.

None of his modelling suggests that there's likely to be a majority Government, although the Conservatives could pick up just over 300 seats in some of his more optimistic modelling.

I'd love to make a prediction myself but at this point I think in all honesty, virtually nothing is certain. The polling is interesting, but as always, speculative, and unsupported by qualitative research to demonstrate is veracity.

One point which I will make in parting, although everyone is excited about May 6th, in reality its what happens on May 7th that matters for the country.

Its not just the quality of ideas...

... it's your ability to show and explain them to your audience which counts.

The New York Times today has a pretty good article on the dangers of PowerPoint. This is focussed on the US military's experience of using the tool, and one result of this process, one of the most fiendishly complex slides of all human comprehension. As the article says:

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The simple fact is that the slide cited here is simply not comprehensible to any human being. It may contain all the information you would ever need on its intended topic, but it simply doesnt function as a tool to deliver information.

Capt. Crispin Burke, aka Starbuck had this to say in his article on the same topic in the Small Wars Journal:

PowerPoint is only as smart as those who are using it. In the military, business and even in NASA, misuse of PowerPoint can cause confusion and frustration. In the hands of a poor communicator, PowerPoint can spread misinformation, leading to bad decision-making. But we will also look at the flip side of the coin: despite the pervasiveness of elaborate PowerPoint presentations within the military, we will also look at PowerPoint presentations that would be considered poor by conventional standards, but actually communicated a message far more effectively than many other presentations.
I think there's a great deal of truth in what Capt. Burke has to say here. Powerpoint is a fantastic tool and used correctly has a great deal of utility. Unfortunately its ubiquitous nature and ease of use have meant that people have started to use it far too often, and for the wrong reasons.

Col. Thomas X. Hammes (Ret.), author of the excellent Sling and the Stone, is scathing of the overuse of powerpoint. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal he has the following to say: soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.
I don't necessarily agree that PowerPoint is hostile to thinking, at least not in the business environment, but the spirit of the article is correct in my opinion. PowerPoint, like Excel and other members of the Microsoft Office package, is widely abused and used for functions to which it is simply not suited.

Taking as an assumption that most people who are likely to read this have sat through plenty of PowerPoint presentations I think it can be taken as red that they can be immensely dull, to the point of eliminating your ability to learn anything meaningful from them. I recently attended a seminar on gas supply, a topic which I actually a passing interest in, but which was rendered almost incomphensible by the presenter's total devotion to his slides above his ideas. Gesturing wildly at vast reams of information projected on the wall he lost track of the fact he was there to talk about the ideas, not marvel in the complexities of slides.

I've seen colleagues spend substantial amounts of time finding just the right clip art, or a sound effect which will amuse the audience for perhaps 2-3 seconds. Rather than concentrating on the content of their presentation.

I have long since been converted to the school of Presentation Zen. I recommend you take a look at the blog, which is updated fairly regularly with good ideas and concepts to consider. The one thing I have learned about PowerPoint is that at the end of the day, it is a tool to support the presenter, not the presentation in itself.

One idea which I have worked to is to reduce a slide to no more than a handful of words (6 or so) and a single image on any given slide, the focus is then on you and your ability to deliver your ideas with the support of what is on the screen behind you. What you use for the image depends on context, I've run the gamut from deeply serious black and white images of people sleeping rough, to whimsical cartoons like Calvin and Hobbs.

The point is that you are then forced to be the provider of information, and your audience will look to you for guidance as you present. This gives you the opportunity for flexibility and adaptability, to move at your own pace and think on your feet about what information you want to share with your audience and how to do it.

Anyone interested in how to present their ideas should take a look at this page, written by Garr Reynolds there are some useful insights to consider, and it sums up what I've been talking about above in significantly more depth.

And don't forget that it is possible to embed youtube videos and even websites into PowerPoint slides if needs be. I've done both and they're a great way of breaking the session up and changing the rhythm to keep your audience interested.

Take a look, see what you think and consider how you use the tools. At the end of the day, you should be the one delivering the message, not a computer screen.


Sunday, 25 April 2010

Certain to Win

I've mentioned the book Certain to Win by Chet Richards before on here, and as I've just got done reading it for the second time I wanted to do a proper review.

Although consultancy is something I've done on and off throughout my professional career up to now, strategy had eluded me. I could be strategic and I like to think I could use strategy, but it was in an instinctive haphazard way.

I resolved to fix this and Certain to Win (C2W from here on in) was one of the first books that was recommended to me. I read it, I got some of it, and I put it down and moved on to other things. Having gone back to it I'm acutely aware of how little I understood the first time round.

C2W was my introduction to concepts like the OODA loop, and the idea that it is speed and accuracy that makes the difference. Both of which are pretty hard concepts to wrap your head around as a newbie, but which will both give you a mechanism through which to consider your ideas and their effectiveness.

It also doesnt fall into the trap of being over long, or focussed on too many case studies. Instead the emphasis is on a very small sample, Southwest Airlines, IBM and the Honda - Yamaha war being the main examples used. By keeping it small and focussed the book remains interesting and punchy throughout, and the author isnt forced to repeat himself to emphasise small details. Hence why this book is so re-readable. You will miss things the first time through.

What is repeated are the core concepts, which occasionally makes this like reading a text book, but then I wouldnt recommend this book to anyone who isnt interested in learning.

Overall an excellent book and one I think its worth having on your shelves if you're interested in strategy.

On a related note, I honestly can't overstate the importance of reading, particularly books like this. Its why I do book reviews on here, because none of us is able to experience every situation, nor come up with every solution to every problem. Chances are no idea you'll ever come up with is utterly original, but you can come up with unique and interesting derivations.

As Gary Player said, "The harder you work, the luckier you get".


Saturday, 24 April 2010


I just finished reading Wikinomics and thought it was well worth a mention. At first I wasnt convinced, if felt too much like a book which would fall into my 'could be a long essay' category, but the more I read the more I was drawn in. Its a truly fascinating read and an engaging style throughout.

The authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams, have an encyclopedic knowledge of the topic they've chosen to address, mass collaboration. There are some interesting and in some cases amusing tales of how mass collaboration has been used in ever situation from the mining industry to IBM and the pharmacutical industry.

Clearly its almost entirely about the internet, but therein lies the charm. It embraces what is an entirely new concept and doesnt try to frame it too heavily in what has gone before. The new structures of collaboration simply do not match up in any way to the instantanous methods which are now avaliable, nor have they ever been able to match the scale at which it now operates.

Although I dont believe that mass collaboration can solve all of life's problems but it's certainly a movement which more companies should seek to exploit.

True to form the authors have a blog associated with the book, creating a forum for further discussion on collaboration. I've only just started getting into their archive of material, but it's comprehensive and easily accessable. I'd suggest getting involved in some of the discussions which go on in the comments of each article, as these are often as interesting as the article itself.

Wikinomics is so far the best book I've read on the concept of collaborative efforts on the internet and I would thoroughly recommend you at least take a look at the blog.


Zen Pundit

I would highly recommend Zen Pundit to pretty much anyone who wants to broaden their circle of interests. The purpose of the blog is, in the words of its founder:
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.
There's a lot of good stuff up there, from book reviews, to terrorism studies, to a recent post on the importance of having an open mind.

Take a look, some of his stuff is hard to get into at first but its worth sticking with it. Some excellent think pieces on there.


Friday, 23 April 2010

The Liberal Democrat reality

A certain amount of credit for this post lies with James over at Campaign War Room, after his post on the infamous Westminster bubble. This led me to consider the relationship between the bubble and what it might be that is driving the Liberal Democrat success in the electoral campaign.

Success, particularly in a campaign of this magnitude, is based on your ability to convince people that you have the best ideas in relation to the issues which they care about. A slightly clumsy explanation, but one which will serve for the purposes of this post. Please feel free to agree or disagree.

Traditionally a national campaign was viewed through the lens of the media, a media which is heavily fixated on the process of politics as it occurs within the Westminster bubble. As James rightly says:

"It has become something of a cliche but it is true that the public don't care about the process of politics. In my experience they take little interest in polls, and virtually none in strategy and how politics really works. That's not to say most people sit around reading policy papers - they obviously don't - and of course they are affected by image and presentation. But most ordinary people, when they do discuss politics, discuss issues. The way the media covers politics is therefore uninteresting to many."
However, this election has a new factor, one which no one could truly predict the outcome of, the debates. These are a forum which, whilst they have a great many rules, are not subject to the filter of the media. The candidates speak to the audience and the audience makes a decision. With approximately 10 million people watching each of the first two debates a substantial number of people are having their decisions affected by a direct contact.

Labour and the Conservatives are used to national campaigns, prepared for it, and have based their campaign assumptions on their understanding of national campaigns. The Liberal Democrats, having not won an election for decades, are not mentally geared up to winning a national election, they are used to fighting for individual seats and fighting hard. Hence their success in by elections in particular. I was lucky enough to be at an event with Peter Kellner of YouGov recently in which he said he felt this election felt more like a byelection than a national election.

In forming a strategy an awareness of the environment, based on as much information as possible, is vital. The Labour and Conservative campaigns have been based on an understanding of an environment which is not the reality of the campaign. The Liberal Democrats however, with a subtly different mindset have a closer instinctive understanding of how to behave.

This is being compounded by the fact that Labour and the Conservatives are, to paraphrase Clausewitz "wading through water". It grows increasingly hard to move, harder to find direction, and harder to react to external events. The tempo of the Lib Dem campaign continues to be high, operating at least at the same rate as the other parties, possibly higher. Note the skillful way the co-ordinated media assault was seen off in less than 24 hours.

If the Liberal Democrats are able to remain operating at their current level it will have a dramatic impact on the political landscape in the UK. Note the Ipsos MORI poll on marginal seats, and the 'hidden' YouGov poll for The Sun, both of which show that Liberal Democrat support is rapidly rising and evolving. Another two weeks of this will have a significant impact on the final election result.

This is all supposition on my part, it might well be utterly wrong, but it fits the situation as I see it. I hope, in time that more evidence will emerge one way or the other as I think there is a great deal to be learned from what is happening right now.


Fast Transients, well worth a read

Take a moment to read Chet Richard's latest post on Fast Transients. A short post wish some excellent quotes from Boyd on tempo, relevant to my last post, my favourite being:
“The idea of fast transients suggests that in order to win or gain superiority, we should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries or inside our adversaries’ time scales.” He concluded that if we can do this, we will appear ambiguous to our adversaries and “thereby generate confusion and disorder.”
As previously threatened I will return to Boyd time and again. In the context of this blog I want to ensure that concepts such as agility, tempo and strategy aren't lost in a general discussion regarding new technology and glitzy items. This is a blog designed to inform, and to help me expand my thoughts on strategy, particularly but not exclusively where it intersects with the online world.

If anything the online world offers more opportunity to use the philosophy underlying manuver warfare. Rapid response is the very nature of the online world, instantanous communications abound and, if capitalised on by a rapid empowered decision making structure, there is the possibility of creating a tempo which is nearly impossible to match.


Learn to let go

Apologies for the lack of original blogging in the last few days, a combination of work and social activities have been demanding my time. Over the weekend I intend to pull togeather a proper review fo Microsoft's new campaign tools, having now spent a bit of time with the technology. For now, I wanted to finish a piece I've had in my drafts for a little while.

Traditional campaigning tends towards a model which is control focussed, with a centralised structure, aimed to mobilising and motivating supporters, organising campaign communications and a myriad other functions. This has evolved and I would recommend that anyone with an interest in campaign organisation check the reading list, particularly the books covering Clinton's campaign and the introduction of the war room structure. Also take a look at Walmart's war room concept if you get a chance.

However, we live in an age of decentralisation, in which innovation comes from unexpected directions and the crowd can often produce answers to problems which are just as useful as the answers produced by skilled individuals and teams. Giving up control is not natural to campaigns, corporations or indeed the majority of us, yet it can produce some excellent results.

Decentralising controls and opening up to a wider community is a strategy which is increasingly used by business, but its day has not yet come totally. Two fine examples of software developments, where dedicated communities of innovators have out thought and out paced traditional organisations, are Linux and Firefox, respectively an operating system and an internet browser. There are dozens of other examples, but I don't want to dwell on them for the moment.

The truism here is that
tools, surrendered appropriately, can be transformed by the online community into more effective forms. Linux and Firefox have both provided the structure within which they want their community to operate, and act as a clearing house for the best ideas, but they do not truly control the process. Of course you need to be able to hold onto the core of your idea, but if the opportunity exists to open yourself up to developers who can help you create a better product then there is strong case to do so.

I'm always interested in the rules and assumptions others operate under, so perhaps its time for one of my own:

Your supporters, taken as a whole, are an untapped force for innovation, which can, under the right circumstances, generate ideas and platforms you may never have thought of, any opportunity to take advantage of this should be taken.
The internet makes this process more effective, but I think its worth noting that this rule does not just apply to internet tools. Usually there will be a need for electronic communication in some form however to access 'the crowd' of your supporters in real time.

Anyone familiar with Boyd will be well abreast of the term 'agility' and this is a core part of the offer of the crowd. They can think the unthinkable, and provide a skillset which the core of the campaign may not have access to. The larger and more motivated the crowd, the faster this will occur, giving you the opportunity to up the tempo of your operation, ideally outpacing any opponent and 'out innovating' them to the point of collapse.

Showing trust in your supporters, by creating an innovative community, will likely strengthen the bond between campaign and supporters, bringing them within the tent. It'll also motivate them to take other ancillary action, in my opinion, since they'll see the direct results of their activity appearing elsewhere.

The process for this could be hugely varied. For a major campaign, with a strong and well used website, you could consider opening up the Application Programming Interface, in the same way that Facebook has with Facebook Connect. Online contests, aimed at generating solutions to specific problems have been widely used in the scientific community, and indeed the mining sector, so why not use the same tools to fix problems in the fields we are trying to address? The UK election campaign is starting to show promise in this area too, as I've discussed elsewhere in this blog.

I'm not saying that this is the be all and end all by any means. A skilled campaign team with a clear strategic goal will always be vital. Or at least I hope so, since I rather enjoy having a job. However, I want to see more campaigns which reach out and down, turning grassroots support into a mobilised community of innovators, who in turn are generating ideas, or new campaign tools, to be deployed by the people organising the campaign.

We're not there yet, but it's coming and I think that resistance comes largely from the traditional structure, rather than any practical problem. Its a scary proposition, but I personally believe its the future.


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Microsoft provide the tools

I'll have more on this when I've had a proper look at the tools, but Microsoft have thrown their hats into the ring, providing tools which will help online campaigning. For the minute I'm stealing this news from Information Week - Government who say:

"Based on Windows Azure, TownHall tries to emulate the experience of being in an actual town hall meeting in a virtual environment, the company said.

Similar to Google Moderator, it allows people to ask questions, vote, read responses, and engage in a community discussion online. Windows Azure is Microsoft's cloud computing platform. As part of a strategy to take advantage of the open government initiatives, Microsoft Monday released a new cloud-based crowdsourcing platform for public officials and candidates running for office.

TownHall is part of a package of cloud-based services Microsoft unveiled Monday called Campaign Ready. The services, based on Azure, are aimed at letting candidates for public office build Web sites that can foster community discussion about issues and campaign topics."

I'll try and have something up soon in my own words.


Dominic Campbell - Blogging the Labour campaign

Accidentally came across Dominic Campbell's "Socialish" blog today and thought it was worth a mention. He's currently writing as part of Labour's new media team, sharing some of the tools and insights from the campaign.

Of particular interest to me is the idea of a virtual phone bank, allowing any activist to take part in the campaign, using a computer tool and their home phone. Call up your call list, open the script, start calling and enter the responses as you go. I have no idea how many volunteers they have working on this service currently, but its convenience and effort multiplying effect should pay dividends.

The 10 days inside the campaign post is worth a glance too. Only skims the surface, but you get a good sense of the pressure that's on people as they approach the final hurdle.



Monday, 19 April 2010

Worthy reading

Revolution Messaging have recently put up a review of their work on the Health Care for America Now campaign. Its well worth taking a look at and is avaliable here.

They're blowing their own trumpet pretty effectively but they do admit that the campaign wasnt perfect. The failure of the FAILElephant (ironically) is highlighted and I personally think its good that they admit that one of their tools didnt work the way it was supposed to.

One of the good things about the internet and digital tools is that they are relatively low cost and are subject to a certain amount of churn. So, your hilarious elephant didnt work out, pick up, shake off and move on.

Also worthly of note is the inclusion of SMS messages with clickthrough phone numbers. Most modern phones now support this technology, allowing you to put a phone number into a text, which the reciever can then dial with one click. I know Blackberries and iPhones also support the same function in emails, allowing you to mesh the technologies togeather without significant issue.

I don't propose to dissect the campaign here, but do take 5 minutes to take a look at the main tools and their relative success.


The Conservative line becomes clear

This is just a quick update on yesterday's post. The Conservative line on the Liberal Democrat surge is now becoming clear. Wisely they are not going on the offensive, but are instead framing the debate as a vote for the Liberal Democrats being a vote which will help Labour.

I'm not sure how well this line will go down with the general public, many of whom want to feel like they are giving both Labour and the Conservatives the finger, whilst still voting for someone. Clegg is their perfect choice.

I would like to see some polling on exactly who it is who is switching to the Liberal Democrats because I have a theory. I think that what we'll see come election day is that those voting Lib Dem will be people who have switched away from the incumbent MP, but who didnt want to go for the direct opposite.

Like Goldilocks, disaffected voters, tired of the shenanigans of the major parties, are looking for something which isnt too hot, isnt too cold, but sits somewhere in the middle and is just right. As the Liberal Democrats embrace the new catch phrase "I agree with Nick", Clegg could well be the 'just right' choice for many.


Sunday, 18 April 2010

Another thought on the Liberal Democrats

And so it has begun, the Liberal Democrats 'must be exposed,' in the words of Gordon Brown. The great clunking fist has begun to swing, aimed squarely at the face of the latest challenger, Nick Clegg.

WIth the latest YouGov poll suggesting that the LibDem surge is actually real, this is hardly surprising. Liberal Democrat policies are hardly the most secure, and their positioning on a number of key issues sits way abreast of the opinions of most people.

Over the next few days I think we'll see a solid attempt by the Conservatives and Labour to mount a concerted assault on Liberal Democrat policies. It's already begun and the momentum will now be unstoppable. At the same time we're seeing an emerging message from the Lib Dems saying that you (the voter) shouldnt be distracted by the big money assaults of the major parties.

The Lib Dems will have to be resolute, sticking firmly to their messaging and forging a path through the assaults on their policy positions if they are to translate the current favourable polls into any real results. I personally think that they don't have the discipline in place to do this, but I could be wrong. In my opinion they will, like a good physics experiment, be altered by the process of observation. They will seek to change their message to further capitalise on their gains, not realising that by adjusting in the short term, they will lose out in the long term.

Of course they may have an unexpected ally in Gordon Brown. After his chanting "I agree with Nick" in the first debate he will look somewhat two faced if he goes on the offensive in the second. The public will not be pleased if Brown tries to kick Clegg's head in live on stage. Then the narrative will be that the major parties are genuinely scared of Clegg, and that he is in truth a serious contender for the throne. This could help drive more disaffected Labour voters away from the party and towards Clegg.

The other unanswered question is whether people will truly care if Clegg's policies make any sense. Most people don't really care about the minutae of policy, it doesnt relate to their world. What they appear to want is pot holes filled, an NHS which sorts out their tickly coughs and ideally they'd prefer not to get mugged.

At this stage I think it will be the message, not the minutae which makes the difference. The second and third debates will inevitably have a dramatic impact because the media has a vested interest in ensuring they do. What the narrative will be out of these debates will come down to a mix of party political messaging, media whim and polling.

If nothing else, it promises to be good theatre.


Saturday, 17 April 2010

The Liberal Democrats, its all in the justification

With the first poll emerging which puts the Liberal Democrats one point ahead of the Conservatives I thought it was time to write something about the mechanisms of justification, and how they relate to my field of interest.

The Liberal Democrats have benefitted significantly from Nick Clegg's debate performance, and in all fairness it was a commanding performance. He was intelligent, engaging and shot from the hip. He didnt pull punches and he stuck rigidly to the "Labservatives" message, unifying the position of the Conservatives and Labour and establishing himself as the only true 'change' candidate.

And so the message has suddenly turned, the Liberal Democrats are a serious contender for the election and the other parties are on the back foot. But really, do we believe that one debate is what changed the minds of so many people?

People make decisions, justify it, and then rationalise it. When they see others making a decision they personally want to justify, they are given the tool they need to justify it. When the only information they have is the media telling them others are making a decision, its even easier. Its always been true that Liberal Democrats are many people's second choice candidate, and all of a sudden the message is, you can vote for them, they're serious people.

The internet is a powerful tool for this type of justification, particularly when it comes to more extreme decisions. People want to belong to a community, or a movement. Previously this would be confined to your immediate surroundings, with the occasional foray into something you'd seen on television or in the newspaper. The problem with the television and the newspaper is that they are one way communicators without a mechanism to engage.

Internet communities are not constrained by distance, and somewhere, there is a group of people who believe virtually anything is a good idea. A virtual community is easily engaged with and allow people to reinforce their opinions with the assistance of others. See, for example, the rise of pro bulimia or pro anorexia sites. Every bit of medical evidence shows both these lifestyle choices are wildly bad ideas, and yet a great and growing number of people appear to be using these sites to justify decisions they want to make. If you dont believe me a quick google search will find you plenty of examples.

I think we are seeing a similar process occuring with the Liberal Democrats, an emerging zeitgeist which is taking hold of a significant number of people. All forms of communication are part of this transition, old media, new media, social media, even me by writing about it.

It will be fascinating to see how this continues to evolve. There will be two more debates to come, and if the instant polls continue to show Clegg as the victor the media will have no choice but to agree to report their rise. This will enable larger numbers of people to justify their choice, and convince still more people to justify theirs, advocates seeking out advocates.

Personally I think this whole process is probably no bad thing, certainly not for democracy in the UK. Adding a viable Liberal Democratic campaign to the mix may not suit my political allegience but it does demand that the other candidates raise the bar and speak truth to power. Although strangely in this case, the power is the people, not the powerful.

And on that note, I'm off to enjoy the sunshine and bask in the zeitgeist.


Recommended listening

I'm a big fan of the Personal Democracy Forum's archive of conference calls and would say that you'll get value out of listening to any of them. They're usually around 45-60 minutes long, with a heavy hitter from one of the online platforms speaking about the uses of their technology, followed by a Q&A with the conference call attendees.

Of particular interest to me were the ones on Ning and Youtube. So far I've only listened to around 5-6 of these, but over the next few months I'll be making time for as many as I can. If any particularly good ones crop up I'll make sure to share.


Satire, the internet and rapid response

If you're like me and watched the debates you may well have been struck by the attempts of all three candidates to ram home the folksy 'I met [X] in [Y] and he/she/it told me [Z] and thats why..." Personally I think subtly linking yourself to real people is probably a good thing. The triumvate on stage were a bit ham fisted about it, but I got the point. Of course there were some moments which generated a good guffaw or two, simply due to their sheer clumsyness.

Then, this morning, I became aware of this website. Which lampoons David Cameron specifically by randomly generating phrases which sound eerily familiar to some of the comments which emerged during the debate. This site went up within hours of the debate and contains a vast array of possible outcomes, in the style of the campaign posters.

I find it quite amsuing that everyone is so excited by things like this. "Lols" have been a huge part of the internet community since their emergence on 4Chan. Lolcats, loldogs and demotivational posters are a fact of life to those of us who spend too long online. People adding captions to political posters is hardly a vast stretch and yet the media is reacting like they've never seen a picture of a hampster with the words "this is serious business" under it

This election has been interesting for the ways in which the internet has been percieved by each campaign as sitting at the heart of engagement. The Labour Party got off the blocks early with their call to make this a 'word of mouth' election, with Douglas Alexander boldly declaring that people occasionly speak to each other, and this might be a good way of sharing information.

The satirist side of the internet has been in full swing, posters in particular have been the target. The best known example being the infamous "Quattro" poster. Originally a crowd sourced attempt to attack the Conservatives, it was almost immediately countered with this rather amusing reinterpretation.

The interesting thing is that although politicians and their teams wax lyrical about the internet and the fact it allows crowdsourcing, they rarely actually control them. They simply have to ride it out and do their utmost to claim credit and co-opt the best ideas.

For the rest of this post, a quick note on definitions, when I am referring to online supporters, I mean the ultra motivated type. The sort who will put togeather a funny website to prove a point, or will spend time on photoshop airbrushing a party leader. I dont mean the people who'll join a Facebook supporters group and nothing more.

Politicians are rarely comfortable with elements of their campaign which are out of their control, and the internet is the perfect example of a forum which cannot be brought under control, but which has a significant impact on the campaigns. The Obama campaign was good at reaching down, ensuring that messages from campaign HQ filtered through to their local activists, through videos and emails which were inclusive, making people feel like they were part of the campaign.

The fact is that in order to even come close to controlling your online supporters you will need to invest significant amounts of time in first identifying them, connecting with them and finally convincing them to do what you want. The last stage may sound simple, what with them being your supporters, but in my experience it's the hardest part. If someone is spending their spare time to generate funny websites on their own time, they may not react well to political headquarters telling them how to do it better.

There are two mechanisms which do work in bringing these supporters to the table, competition or collaboration.

Competitions, with or without prizes work surprisingly well. The internet is a forum with a unique power to share ideas and have them judged by your peers. Everyone wants the last word, and to be hailed as the greatest inventor of funny cat pictures the world has ever known. The Labour campaign poster I mentioned earlier in this post was a competition winner, with more than 1000 entrants.

Collaboration, crowd sourced ideas, or a tool which allows people to improve on the efforts of others. I would say that falls broadly into this category. Hundreds of people given a guide from previous efforts, generating new material. I'm a sucker for crowd sourcing, and at some stage I'll get round to reviewing Wikinomics. Just as soon as I finish reading it.

There is still a great deal of work to be done on how to utilise widespread internet activism and guide it. Working out how to do this without limiting the creativity of the dedicated people taking time out of their own lives to generate weird and wonderful websites and alternate posters.


Friday, 16 April 2010

Controlling the mission

A briefing bit of musing based on an experience I had recently. I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago and the conversation turned to strategy. I used the phrase 'mission creep' which led to the room turning to look at me like I'd grown a second head.

A strategy is only as useful as the level to which you adhere to it, and to which your activity supports it. But I've seen, both from personal experience and second hand, that all too often the fundamental strategy is seen as an optional extra and falls by the wayside in the face of activity which leads you down the metaphorical rabbithole.

Mission creep is the term which I prefer to use. It's a military term and refers to the expansion of a mission beyond its original parameters. Too often this is the case with a strategic objective. Ancillary activity degrades the primary focus and over time there is a shift towards this ancillary activity over the strategic goal. Often this occurs because the ancillary activity is immediate and convenient, as opposed to the strategic goal which is far off and challenging to achieve.

I'm now at the stage where I will physically write down the strategic goal of a project and weigh activity against the strategy before committing significant amounts of time to it. This can be challenging as clients will often ask me to undertake activity which doesnt support the goal. Now in these cases you often have to roll over, but it is well worth trying to convince the client to reconsider, at least once.

I will continue musing on this topic as it's something which frustrates and fascinates me in equal measure.


Words to live by

I'm just finishing off The Power of the Vote, written by Douglas Schoen of Penn, Schoen & Berland. It charts his life and some of the key lessons he's learned about campaigning. Although I dont propose to review it in full here I wanted to lift his 'campaign principles', as I think these shine through in their clarity and simplicity.

These principles are applicable to a wide variety of eventualities, from crisis communications to a corporate campaign, the comment on each is mine:

1) Start yesterday: Front runners tend to be winners - Being abreast of your issues might seem like a bit of a simplistic thing to say, but its surprisingly common to find that people simply arent ready when something comes out of left field.

2) Define the issues on your own terms - before others define for you - Witness the recent Wikileaks furore and you'll see what this is all about. If the Department of Defence had released the footage on their own terms they could have owned the story, and made sure an unedited version of the tape was everywhere. As it is they've let Wikileaks turn the story into what they want under the emotive heading "Collateral Murder". This is particularly true in the internet generation when material can get out there fast and hard, and the genie is impossible to put back in the bottle.

3) Know the competition and be ready to respond - In my mind 'respond' in this case means be prepared to go to war with them. Find out their weak spots, dig out the dirt. Again, the internet is your friend since pretty much anything of note will have left a footprint somewhere on the world wide web. But reach out, find out everything you can and keep it ready

4) Understand the issues that move people to action and organise the campaign around those issues - There's no point in organising a campaign which people won't commit to beyond clicking 'become a fan' on Facebook. Find issues people will go to the barricades for, those are your core issues, everything else is fluff.

5) Let no attack - overt or implied - go unanswered - I'm not always sure this is entirely true, imagine if the Obama campaign had gone after every attack floating around on the internet. Obama would have spent so much time arguing that he wasnt a Kenyan/Muslim/Terrorist, but you certainly should hit back effectively against any attack you can, even if its by confessing.

6) Take the offensive, play to win, and know what that means - Strategy, strategy, strategy. If you dont know what winning looks like, you'll get lost in the wilderness trying to get there. Set yourself a goal, stick to it, assess activity in light of this goal. "Mission creep" is the bane of any campaign. Stay on target.

7) Stay nimble - Be ready for the environment to change, because it will. Absorb all the information you can, it'll help you in the long term. Remember the OODA loop.

Enjoy these, I think they're pretty integral to understanding how a campaign should be run.

Thats all for now.


Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Returning to

I took part in an interesting conference call today with some colleagues and the team from, who I have mentioned before in this blog. They gave us an overview of the technology behind the websites they work on, and I have to admit that I was impressed. Although I can see the limitations of the platform it is certainly on the right track and they have ambitious plans to enhance their offer.

The way I now envisage is as a hub, drawing in people from social media, to a central point where opportunities for action are provided. The range of platforms they can access is pretty much infinite, so long as it has an API (as most social networking sites do) then they can get into it and build an interface that'll link in to your hub.

The actions you provide are currently limited to online activities, many of which refer you back to the social media site you just came from. However they are looking at ways of creating interfaces to real world activity. Joining a Facebook event is one example, certainly using Facebook events to mobilise large groups is effective. I hope in time they are able to find a way to reward someone for turning up to a march, rather than rewarding them for the promise of turning up to it however, right now the technology simply isnt there.

I'm not convinced that the reward system is necessarily a motivating factor at the moment. Its cute, but I think the purpose it serves is more subtle. Its a validator, if you see that 1000 people have generated 100,000 points through their activity, it is inherently justifying what you are about to do. Other people have done it, therefore it's safe and you can do it without risking ridcule. The leaderboard is one feature which I personally could do without.

As I've said before, speed kills, and is well placed to be deployed quickly to match a campaign. Although it should be said that the quicker the campaign is rolled out, the more generic it'll end up looking. I would imagine that you'd want to give yourself at least a month to build the site in an ideal world, to give it a unique look and feel. The more popular gets the greater the risk that you'll see dozens of identical sites pop up with slightly different names. I'm sure thats something they'll address in time, but its worth being aware of. On the other hand, it is pretty, and for the moment its extremely novel. Most people won't have seen anything like it, and this creates a baited hook for people.

There is also a substantial backend, so you are able to see what your members are doing. Members can be asked to provide contact information, which is of course useful. But they also provide biographical information, so getting a rough idea of what types of people are doing which activity is possible. I can see possibilities for rough polling being built into these sites in time.

Overall I liked what I saw. There are some good ideas here which will grow stronger in time. I got the feeling that to some extent the team at are still learning what their platform can do, and I think thats a huge positive. They dont know what can't be done and they're willing to give things a try. As their client base grows I expect their services will diversify and the complexity of their package will grow in leaps and bounds. They are part of the cutting edge, doing stuff that no one else is and finding new ways to use existing tools.

I really recommend you have a look at their website and dig into what they have to offer.


One for the blog roll

A friend of mine has started a new blog entitled The Campaign War Room. Describing itself as "Analysis of communications and strategy. Mostly focused on political campaigns, information operations, and interesting corporate communications and ad campaigns. Above all, it asks, "what works?" If you find campaigns, strategy or politics of interest you'll enjoy it.

The blog can be found here, I've also added it to the reading list.


Saturday, 10 April 2010

John Boyd and the little differences

John Boyd is a name too few people have heard, but reading his ideas and approach to military campaigning were the first time I was exposed to some of the core concepts of campaigning. I started to understand the difference between tactics and strategy.

Boyd was a military strategist and fighter pilot in the USA. Although now sadly deceased he was a well respected, if eccentic figure. He was fascinated by high strategy, as well as the tactical level of air combat.

For those new to campaigning I thoroughly recommend the excellent book Certain to Win, by Chet Richards. This book gives an interesting and well written overview of John Boyd's theories and their applicability to the world of business and campaigning. I will do a full review of this book soon.

The most important of these ideas is the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action, the 4 steps by which we all relate to the environment around us at all times.

There is a logical utility of this loop for campaigners, who are constantly having to address a changing environment and adapt to circumstances, while staying within the overall strategy of the campaign. Constant observation, orientation and reorientation, a decision based on the first two stages and finally the action (or indeed reaction)

You can see a full version of the OODA loop here, although this is the more complex version it should be relatively comprehensible.

In my view a major part of the curve is using it at speed. Speed is key, speed kills, being faster than your opponent is vital to any campaign. The best projects I have worked on have been the ones where the reaction to any change in circumstances has been nearly instant, with the team knowing what to do, and the client trusting us to go ahead and do it.

One of Boyd's key projects was the comparison of the Russian MiG-15 and US F86-Sabre. The Sabre was, on paper at least, an inferior plane to the MiG-15, yet the Sabre consistantly came out ahead in the field. Boyd and his team worked out that the defining difference was the bubble canopy used in the Sabre. This allowed the pilot to see more of the sky and assess where the enemy was more swiftly.

The message here is not a particularly subtle one. The more information you have and the quicker you are able to obtain it, the better your position will be in relation to your opponent. Even a guess is better than nothing, so long as it is an educated guess.

It is also an object lesson, that it is rarely the obvious things which make the ultimate difference. It is the hidden elements, or at least the less than obvious details which make a campaign. This is why you have to have a structure in place which is able to swiftly adapt to change and is firmly linked to the core message of your campaign.

The most important part of the OODA loop is that you act. Acting is often the most difficult part. People are scared to take that leap of faith and want to rethink the decision, or worse yet take it to a committee. In my opinion it is better to act, punch through your indecision and come out the other side. The odds are that your decision will be right, and if not, you've learned something along the way and you won't make the same mistake again.

I'll definately be revisiting Boyd, probably time and again. He is a key figure in my thoughts on campaigning and I advise anyone with an interest to read Certain to Win.


Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Revolution Messaging

As part of my cunning plan to avoid having a life I found myself reading Personal Democracy Forum's "Who to hire" guide. This is a new product which I'm quite seriously considering investing in, giving an overview of the big players in the high tech campaigning market, the products they offer and the way they are percieved.

The thing I first noticed was that Blue State Digital wasnt at the top of the list. As they're the company everyone seems to like talking about I figured that they would inevitably be top 3 at worst. In fact they were 9th. The top of the list is Revolution Messaging, the company run by Scott Goodstein, the brain behind Obama's social and mobile (phones that is) campaigning efforts.

Mobile tools arent something which I have, as yet, used, however I think its fair to say that they are an emerging force. Literally billions of people have mobile telephones and increasingly they are the primary form of communication.

People are, unsurprisingly, not keen to give up their mobile details, something which the Obama campaign struggled to deal with. In the end they resorted to a gimmick, offering up the Vice Presidential pick to their mobile subscribers first. This led to a huge surge in publicity and unsurprisingly an equally huge surge in subscribers.

Text messages are regarded as more 'serious' than emails. People assume that a text message requires immediate action, rather than being something they can push off for a day or two. They are also likely to be read, from start to finish, due to their length. Two things you can't be certain of when sending out an email.

An effective two way dialogue can be set up using text messages. A response from your mass messaging will usually be extremely short, often just a couple of words, making it easier for you to deal with. Rather than emails, where people write back vast reams of material, then become irritated when you don't respond to it.

Mobile is not just text messages however, increasingly you can integrate phone communications with the internet, driving people towards an online form or webpage. Personally I think this could have a dramatic impact on a campaign if you could create a mobile optimisted submission form online, although I've yet to see this being done.

Mobile communication is also a chance for a campaign to reach people when they arent behind a computer and ask them to do something. I am personally concerned that campaigns focus too much on things which can be done at the desk, rather than what can be done in person. Getting people out on the streets, or going to meet their MP or some other esoteric activity, is equally important, but is far more difficult and therefore often relegated.

A mobile campaign is dependent on software which will cost you significant amounts, so for a small campaign its not going to be a lot of use. Also, you need to be certain that your return on investment is going to be worthwhile. So strictly understanding what the strategic aim of the communication would be critical.

The groups who I can really see this technology impacting are larger organisations who are able to wholly mobilise their membership. This would be particularly true of environmental groups for example, who are often able to inspire a great deal of action amongst their membership dedicated to a single cause.

So far I've yet to see this technology in action, but in my opinion it is part of the growing wave of integration between types of communication. Email, text messages, the internet, are all increasingly inseperable and are constantly spawing new combinations which expand and extend the options for campaigns and campaigners to get people involved.


Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Oh dear, its the election...

And so it begins, with fake crowds, uninspiring speeches and presumably the Liberal Democrats have reacted in some way too.

This is all froth, there are two things which will influence the outcome of this election and two things only, the campaigns in the marginal seats, and the leadership debates.

The marginal seats are where its all going to be happening. I'd put money on the fact that if you live in an even vaguely safe seat, you won't even notice theres an election on. If there's a chance the seat will switch however, you may well want to invest in a furnace to dispose of the election materials. The Tories have to pull of an electoral micacle to win this so there's everything to play for.

The leadership debates may be game changing, but only if someone screws up in a dramatic way. If David Cameron gets out his wallet and explains how he usually carries what the rest of us earn in a year on him as cash, that'd be bad. If Brown wades into the audience screaming "Brown smash" and bludgeoning people with his huge clunking fists, that'd probably be quite good for him. Most likely they'll all be polished to hell and no one will say anything dramatic.

And so it begins, not with a bang, but a whimper. 4 weeks from now we'll have a new government.


Monday, 5 April 2010

The media and the message

A former colleague and I sat down recently and were chatting about the struggles newspapers were having in a digital age. Now, a lot has been written on this topic, but so far a great deal has missed the point (In my admittedly humble opinion).

I frequently quote the following adage 'news is a story someone doesn't want you to hear, anything else is advertising'. By that definition most news is advertising. Most people are simply unaware that their news is written by PR firms and regurgitated by the press.

I should say for the record, I have no idea what the origins of that quote are, in fact I may have made it up to illustrate my point.

Newspapers are increasingly the medium by which the message is transmitted. The messages they produce are comment pieces, usually following the agenda of the paper itsel.f. They pump out material generated by others, rather than reporting news. This isn't true all the time, but surprisingly often it is.

Now, I'm fortunate. Having written a few press releases I know roughly what is and isn't PR material. I reckon I get an 80% hitrate. But most people are aware of the 'falseness' of news, but only subconciously. What I dont think people are aware of is exactly how calculated it is, or how little of what the read is actually news.

With the proliferation of new media news sources traditional sources look increasingly A) expensive B) dull. Why would I read a story about something that happened yesterday on a piece of dead tree and pay for it? I can get my Jordan news for free, thanks.

I could go onto the websites and take a look there, but the websites arent offering me anything which I can't get elsewhere. Personally I stay fairly well tuned in to the Guardian and Telegraph websites, I rather like them, and I can usually find what I'm looking for. Plus I can always find something on one or the other to annoy me when I need a little middle of the day rage based pick me up.

But the old school journos have two things, access and experience. Unfortunately their access is too often granted from collusion and their experience is from rewriting press releases.

The thing I would pay for is news. Actual news. Things which shake society and redefine our relationship with power. Watergate, expenses (yes, it has happened in recent times), the tobacco industry expose on 60 minutes (limited though it was in many ways). I honestly think thats what more people would like to see. Remember the days when Parkinson would ask the same question a dozen times to get an answer? I miss those days.

Murdoch and others have to consider carefully what they are offering behind their paywalls. If its the same old thing, well I'll read that somewhere free, as will most people. The Telegraph can replace the Times, and I'll cheerily swap The Mirror or Mail for the Sun.

But if the formidable power of these institutions is to be redirected to true journalism, now that I'd pay for. That would be a truly unique service, one which I can't get from the blogs or any other source.

If the newspapers want to get back on top of the heap when it comes to the news and make money, there are three options:

1) They have to offer a unique product
2) They have to offer the same product as everyone else, but substantially cheaper then the competition
3) They have to provide the product at the same price as their competition, but make it more convenient.

I think what we'll see is a combination of 2 & 3. Option 1 is my idealistic way of confronting the world. Online media is cheap, and there is money to be made from advertising if you can get the volume of people onto the website in the first place.

The Guardian's iPhone app is (as I understand it) profitable, bringing money back into the company. This is unique in the industry (again, this is second hand, but from a source I trust). They've found a convenient way to deliver news and provided it at a price people will pay, so, unsurprisingly they do.

I'm increasingly convinced at least one of the papers will go entirely out of business in the next 2-3 years. Circulation is through the floor and innovation is nearly non existant. Which paper that might be, I dont know, certainly it'll be a broadsheet.

There are so many options for papers to move into the 21st century, so far they've been stubbornly resistant to doing so, but perhaps when they finally start to feel the pinch they'll do it.

Until then, lets all enjoy reading press releases from big companies printed on dead trees.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Youtube in crisis and in heath

I was hoping to use a clip from BA to illustrate my point here, but unfortunately their youtube doesnt allow embedding, or at least I couldnt figure it out, and I choose to believe that's the same thing

At some point, every business faces a crisis. Now, the best way to prepare for a crisis is to be ready before it happens. For the purposes of this article however, lets assume you didnt prepare and its all going a little bit wrong.

Traditionally the media would spend at least 24 hours kicking your ass all over the place while you were stumbling around in the dark trying your best to figure out what the heck just happened. This was true in the case of Honda recently when it transpired that a fault in their cars could put your life in serious danger.

Unsurprisingly they paniced, and it took them a while to get on top of the issue, then, all of a sudden, they produced this:

This appeared to confuse the media, as they suddenly started reporting a different story, not that getting into your car could result in you plunging off a cliff at high speed, but that a CEO had put a video on the internet. The video was well scripted, the performance was a little stiff, but managably so, and all the key messages are there.

The internet has given companies an option to totally exclude the media from their relationship with the public, if they so choose. I personally dont recommend this approach as the media can be exceptionally fussy and will write unpleasant things about you if you pretend they do exist. You can however adopt an approach between the two.

More companies and political parties need to start forging these links with their customers/voters, whether there's a crisis or not. Web Cameron was a perfect example of this, it humanised David Cameron, and created an exceptional amount of good press for him as he pottered around his kitchen, proving that he was definately a man of the people.

Web Cameron has now evolved into something a bit more generic, but that doesnt matter at this stage. It served its purpose and transformed the way that people looked at Cameron, and created a great deal of debate about whether he was 'different' from what had come before.

I would love to be able to convince some of my clients to get out there, to expose themselves directly to the consumers they want to speak to and try and actually build a relationship. Youtube isnt necessarily the perfect medium in all cases, but its not a bad start.

The media has been the way of communicating with the public all too often and we're finally at a stage where that can be changed. Its now entirely possible to communicate with your supporters directly, and even better, get the media to report how great you are for ignoring them and communicating with your supporters.

There is a risk, many CEOs and senior staff couldnt talk to the general public if their lives depended on it. Gordon Brown's attempt to reach out to voters on Youtube deserves special mention in this regard:

Also, as this video clearly demonstrates, you need to be in a position where someone can tell you if the video is actually very very bad before you put it on Youtube. If someone had told Brown this video clearly wasnt up to scratch he'd have avoided some very unpleasant headlines. Theres nothing in here which couldnt have been fixed, they just didnt fix it.

For the record, I'm not going to be writing about Obama in this entry, but he did the Youtube thing pretty well too, to put it mildly.

Direct marketing is a fascination of mine. At some point I'll write a bit about Being Direct by Lester Wunderman, a fantastic book about the evolution of this type of selling.

We're now at a stage where a brand, or an ambassador of that brand, can stand in front of you and tell you about it, they can literally look you in the eye and say their piece. Its yet to become mainstream, and its not been tested to the level everyone is comfortable with it. But it is there, it is growing, and I think 10 or 20 years from now we won't be able to imagine a world in which companies werent endlessly trying to open a dialogue with us.

Perhaps we'll all then wish we were still getting junk mail instead.


Saturday, 3 April 2010

Left vs. Right book review

After commenting yesterday on two books which covered the same subject I thought it might be interesting to write a review of a couple of books which are thematically similar, but from very different perspectives.

First is The Unfinished Revolution by Philip Gould. The book covers the period of Gould's
involvement with the Labour Party, right from its unelectable days in the 80's, through to the rise of Blair and the modernisation of the Party.

One of my favourite pet peeves about political books rears its head early in this one. Gould writes as if he spent his life on a quest, searching for dragons to slay, but in truth he spent a substantial amount of time tilting at windmills.

All that aside, there is some really interesting stuff in here. It is particularly interesting to see the early conflicts between Blair and Brown, especially when you consider how the battle played out in recent times. I have a wholly new respect for Mandelson after reading this and I think I better understand why he has remained so steadfastly involved in the party.

On the campaign front I found the idea of pledges fascinating. I've done messaging work, and its truly impressive how the messages of the campaign were distilled down into short achievably pledges. After decades in the wilderness the Party had a huge challenge to get back to the political mainstream.

Conservative activists should read this book, particularly as we approach an election and ask whether the Conservative Party is in a position to replicate 1992 or 1997, and whether attempts made to rehabilitate the Party have been successful outside Westminster.

The second book is one which I was recommended by a friend of mine. I quickly discovered he was a source in the book, and had to question his motivation. For all that this is an excellent book, although it is not a cheery read.

Back from the Brink by Peter Snowdon charts the fall and rise of the Conservative Party, from the last days Thatcher through to late 2009. Snowdon has done his work, with over 150 people quoted as sources, some of them big names. There are plenty of unnamed sources, and some of them have clearly used the opportunity to stab enemies, past or current, in the back.

The second half of the book, charting Cameron's rise to the head of a fractious Party, is more interesting. Somewhat light on insight about the Campaign, the book does a marvellous job of laying out the fault lines and personalities within the party.

Seeing behind the scenes during the infamous 'election that didnt happen' is really interesting. Personally I had never considered quite how vital this event was, but looking back, it seems likely that without this the Party would be in opposition for another 4-5 years and Brown would have a Parliamentary majority of 40-60 members. Staggering when you think that we're now staring a hung Parliament in the face.

Of the two, I personally enjoyed Gould's book more, despite its somewhat florid prose. Labour were forced to work a lot harder for a lot longer than the Conservatives (in my opinion) to regain the public's trust. The brutual length of the campaign to rebrand the Labour Party is spelled out in detail and offers insight which is hard to come across.

Back from the Brink also offers insight, but also makes it pretty evident that a few extremely fortuate events helped bring the Tories back. Of course its fair to say that the harder you work the luckier you get, and the Tories have certainly worked.

Both books are worth a read, regardless of your political affiliation, and give specific details of the tools and tactics used by each Party to reinvent itself for the electorate.


Friday, 2 April 2010 and motivation

One company which I think is truly pushing the boundaries in terms of providing web tools to engage with supporters of a campaign is the little know company

The essential premise is that supporters go onto a website which presents them with a range of activities they can undertake in return for points. There is a leaderboard for registered users, and of course, the more the supporter does the higher they rank. There's a part of me that shakes my head at this, but then theres a part of me eagerly wanting to join a facebook group so I can get 25 points.

One site which has used this technology is Cash Gordon the Conservatives attempt to get people interested in the idea that the Unions are basically bankrolling the Labour Party. Its worth taking a look to see what sort of options you have. You can read reports, post on Twitter, join Facebook groups and so forth.

Its a pretty smart way of mobilising people and encouraging them to get involved. The leaderboard is a nice touch.

Now, the downside of this is that does have a very 'off the shelf' look to it, and that was quickly picked up in the media.

Also, in the specific case of Cash Gordon, the team that put it togeather didnt notice that they'd left an exploit in place which allowed Twitterers (Twits?) to hijack their site. This of course led to much hilarity as the site took you to, amongst other places, the delightful Lemon Party, and the equally fun Labour Party website.

Personally, I'd probably think twice before I used, but only because of the off the shelf feel to it. I worry that in a couple of years 1000 people will have used it and it won't be fresh.

What it does offer is a great case study of one of the most important parts of a campaign. Finding a mechanism by which a fan, becomes an follower, and an advocate. One of the finest practical demonstrations of this is avaliable in this fantastic video

(At some point I'm going to write a post devoted solely to this video)

At the end of the day there is no better way to transform someone from a passive fan to an active member of a movement than reward. Shirtless dancing guy rewards his first follower with direct recognition. But this reward can be almost utterly imaginary, points on don't cost anyone anything, but they are a motivator. The inclusion of a ranking system is a work of genius.

The best tool I've ever found is direct contact, either through email or on the phone. It has to be personal, or as personal as you can make it. There are some tools which I'll write about down the line you can use to distribute mass mailings with a degree of personality. is a great tool. Novel and with great potential. I don't think it'll change the world, but it will definately help some campaigns get more people interested and doing small scale action.

The main flaw of this service is that it only gets people doing thinks behind a keyboard. It wouldnt get people to form a flash mob, or to set up a meeting with someone, or even pick up the phone, as there is no way of rewarding this activity.

It's not perfect, but its out there, doing something new.


The Obama Books

Like everyone else it seems, I'm fascinated by the Obama campaign and the impressive grassroots movement that was generated around it. So far I've read two books which I think have best evaluated the campaign and I thought I'd write a few lines about each here.

The first is The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe's somewhat self congratulatory look at the campaign he managed. Beautifully written and fascinating in its depth and honesty it was an absolute pleasure to read. I found it difficult to put down.

The first half of the book is by far and away the better section. The campaign in its early stages and during the Obama v Hillary period is where many of the most innovative and impressive ideas came into their own. I think most pundits have now recognised that Obama v McCain was a forgone conclusion, particularly once Palin was involved.

The structure of the grassroots campaign has been the source of much writing, but to see it from the insider's perspective makes it fresh and interesting. So many campaigns have tried to lift these tools and have failed to generate anything like the interest Obama did. The Conservatives have tried exceptionally ha
rd to do it in the UK and so far, have met with little success.

The book is honest, accepting that much of the public support was self generating and the best contributions came from people who had no part in the official campaign. There's probably a lesson for us all there.

There is a tone of slight smugness, and a trace of arrogance to it all. But to me, thats fine. Plouffe managed to get an African American elected to the post of President. he can be as smug and arrogant as he likes. Its just a shame that the failings of the campaign arent better highlighted as an object lesson to readers who want to replicate his success and avoid the pitfalls.

The second book worthy of mention is Race of a Lifetime, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. These two journalists had an impressive amount of access to the campaigns and gathered a huge range of sources and quotes.

The book is written almost as a political thriller, rather than an accurate record of historical fact. In many ways that makes it a lot more fun. There are torrid affairs, shouted arguments, thrills, spills and behaviour which would probably shame 8 year olds.

Its a lot more fun than Plouffe's book and it has a lot more honesty. Staff are quoted showing all the candidates, on both the Republican and Democrat sides at their best and worst. Reading about the rationale behind the Sarah Palin pick is one of the more amusing sections.

There is also a lot of material which is interesting and useful for a campaigner. Staff talk openly about how they brought (or tried to bring) people on board, and provide probably more insight than they truly meant to.

Race of a Lifetime is definately the fun book of the two. There's lots in there which is academically useful, but its also just a great read.

So there you go, my first book reviews, go forth, buy both these books, they will make you a better person.


A constant frustration

I find it somewhat irksome that every campaign must have a digital component. That might seem like a counter intuitive point of view from someone who wants to write a blog about the online world and how it relates to campaigning, but hear me out...

Too often creating a Facebook group, or a Twitter feed, is a tickbox exercise, inspired by a media obsession with these services. Online campaigning is harder is some ways than traditional campaigning. Rather than reaching out, you have to create a social network that people want to buy into, which isnt a comfortable position to be in.

I've been involved with quite a few Facebook groups attached to particular campaigns, some of these groups are of a substantial size, and yet in real terms, they're not much use. People havent bought into the idea, they've just clicked "accept" when someone has invited them to the group.

Techpresident recently had an article which sums up Facebook's role in campaigning far better than I ever could, entitled Has Facebook Jumped the Shark? I thoroughly encourage you to read it:

"What are social networking sites designed to do? Connect people, of course, but connect them in distinctive ways depending on the specific site. LinkedIn, for instance, joins people who want to maintain relationships for professional reasons, while special-interest social networking sites (see connect people who are passionate about a particular topic.

Looking at Facebook, it's clear that its user model has a definite bias toward connecting people one-on-one or in small groups. Unlike MySpace, which was designed to make it easy for bands to contact fans en masse, Facebook's core functions revolve around individual connections between individual people. Of course, features like Mini-Feeds, the Wall and various Applications create social connections and social spaces, but the mass-messaging features included in Groups and Fan Pages are limited and have the feel of afterthoughts rather than core functions."

The new service which is generating an increasing amount of buzz is Ning. This is a site which has been developed specifically to bridge the gap between social media and campaigning. Extremely widely used in the USA the site allows you to build your own social network around a campaign or an idea, but it has yet to break through into the UK.

Because it is disconnected from traditional social networking, people who join a Ning network have automatically taken an extra step and become actively involved. A range of tools (which you can here) and apps (many of them user generated and avaliable here) providing a nearly infinite range of options.

Its easy to become myopic about the tools we use and the way we use them. The media obsesses about Twitter, so campaigns obsess about it, not realising that the user base for Twitter is absolutely minute and is often used by people who don't or won't 'get' Facebook and other services.

Digital involvement in a campaign must be an integrated into your pursuit of an end goal. Its not something you can tack on. A myopic focus on popular tools almost certainly will not serve your goal. Look outside the box, figure out what will help you best, and give it a shot.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The reading list

The following is a selection of books I've read which I've found helpful in getting my thoughts in order. This is by no means exhaustive, and I read a lot more widely than this selection. My advice is to read as much as you can about as much as you can. In the interim, the following books should be helpful:

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President – James Carville and Mary Matalin

Tribes – Seth Godin

Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawade

Sling and The Stone – Col Thomas X Hammes

Ender’s Game - Orson Scott Card

Power of the Vote – Douglas Schoen

Buck Up, Suck Up – James Carville and Paul Begala

The Big Enchilada – Stuart Stevens

Behind the Oval Office – Richard Morris

Wikinomics – Tapscott, Anthony & Williams

The Unfinished Revolution – Philip Gould

Clash of Civilisations – Samuel Huntingdon

Damage Control – Eric Dezenhall

Boyd – Coram

Being Direct – Lester Wunderman

Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

Certain to Win – Chet Richards

The Audacity to Win – David Plouffe

Back from the brink – Snowdon

Race of a Lifetime - Mark Halperin, John Heilemann

And then there’s the blogs, I tend to check in with these a couple of times a week to see what’s new. This list is a lot more electic and less directed towards campaigning, but they all offer interesting insights or just a good read:

Zen Pundit



Dizzy Thinks

Kings of War

Tech Crunch

The Campaign War Room



Boing Boing