With just two months to go, when will the internet election take off?
The man behind Obama's online campaign tells Ian Burrell where British parties can up their game
Monday 01 March 2010
Thomas Gensemer, young mastermind of Barack Obama's universally acclaimed online presidential campaign, puts his laptop on the table before him and fires it up.
He's sitting in the boardroom of his spartan new London offices, close to a busy railway junction. Outside, the skies are saucepan grey and giving off an unrelenting drizzle. Britain is not looking at its best and neither, in the eyes of this 32-year-old new media pioneer, are the attempts of British politics to emulate the extraordinary success of MyBarack Obama. com, which is credited with being the key vehicle in mobilising the Democrat vote in 2008.
Gensemer calls up the home page of MyConservatives.com. On the site David Cameron tells voters: "What MyConservatives does is it gives people like you some very simple tools to campaign for the candidates and the issues that you care about." One senior Tory recently proudly told me that this site had been inspired by Obama's efforts and had placed the Conservatives, "streets ahead of the other parties when it comes to e-campaigning".
But Gensemer doesn't view it quite so positively. With barely concealed amusement he calls up a section of the site which is headed "David Cameron for Prime Minister". There is an invitation to make a "simple, speedy and secure" donation. "This is a little embarrassing that he's not reached his goal," he comments dryly. The mercury in the donation thermometer is barely out of the bulb, standing at just £995 when the scale rises to a campaign target of £10,000.
The donation thermometer is, he says, an example of "tools for tools sake", which cannot be effective when the site's users are kept at a distance. "MyConservatives is very graphically pretty, but there's no real story-telling there," he says. "It wasn't just that we had 13 million email addresses on the Obama campaign, it was that they were engaged day in and day out by a narrative that gave them a seat at the table in the campaign."
Asked for an example of this story-telling, he goes to YouTube and calls up a clip called "Charles Meets Barack", which featured the story of Charles Alexander, an 86-year-old volunteer, who started helping out with the Obama campaign in the weeks after the death of his wife. Filmed by fellow volunteers in the Boulder, Colorado, Democrat campaign office, it was one of 10,000 videos made by party workers who were encouraged to see the value of personal and local tales. Alexander's moving life story and his hope for the future became an internet hit. Nothing like it has happened here yet.
Is Gensemer surprised by that? "Yes. It's not surprising those stories haven't come through in traditional media which is so dominated by the personality equation between Gordon and David. Online they have that [platform] but it seems very limited. It's not influencing the overall story at all."
You wouldn't expect Gensemer to cheerlead for the Tories, given he's a Democrat and that several employees at the London office of his company Blue State Digital (which is headquartered in Washington and has a presence in three other American cities) are former Labour party workers. But he's no great admirer of Labour's online strategy either. "Last week Labour launched another microsite, this time around their new slogan," he says. "Another was [about] the NHS. They have all these issue-specific beachheads without the connecting tissue between them. How do I as a volunteer, a donor or an organiser see the threads that connect these different issues? The big idea is always the stuff that connects all the little ideas."
Gensemer credits both main British parties with making progress in their digital campaigning in the past four years. But there is far to go. Whereas Obama's new media team on election day was 100-strong, the Labour party dedicates only around five staffers to the equivalent roles.
At US elections, presidential campaign teams take over the party apparatus, with thousands of young volunteers flooding in. Gensemer addressed a recent gathering at which all the main British parties were represented and asked them whether they found the notion of 100 new volunteers joining an established constituency association "exciting or terrifying". Parties need to be willing to "change the status quo" in order to get more people involved, he says. "They've yet to fully embrace the idea of a different form of membership at election time."
Although British parties have adopted technology from America, most activists have carried on working as before. The Tory Facebook site has just 22,000 friends, while Labour has around one third of that, in addition to its internal Labour Members Net. The numbers seem small. "I don't think people have a stronger connection to the party now in election time than they had a year ago or at the last general election," says Gensemer, who applauds a recent Labour email to supporters in which David Blunkett, addressing the party's relative lack of funding, provided an "underdog" narrative to the battle ahead.
This type of storytelling is "how you make politics exciting and personal for people and break through the cynicism. If you just tell the story through the lens of the political reporter you alienate so many people."
He is surprised by the "top down" culture of British parties, and the lack of regional stories . Obama supporters were first energised by emailed stories of the battle for Iowa. "You could still make the game plan for Iowa interesting to a donor in California, introduce them to field organisers on the ground, make them feel part of that story so that it wasn't just a dot on the map but part of a larger effort."
Digital strategies were more central to American campaigning, he suspects, because they had shown their value in monetary terms at various points in the four-year presidential cycle. "It was largely the product of fundraising success in 2004, 2006 and then 2008 that allowed us to increase our role. [The British digital teams] probably don't have that degree of leverage here because the fundraising success has not been as dramatic."
During the Obama campaign, BSD's team closely monitored the responses of potential supporters. If people showed the initiative of offering their email at a live event, they were targeted more quickly for a donation. Others were sent a cash request when they opened up their second email. It seemed to work, with 3.5m becoming donors, with the average donor giving more than once.
"I don't know that any of the parties here are looking at it that methodically," says Gensemer, who thinks British parties are still fighting their battles in traditional media. "They're throwing things up, getting the press story around it and then moving on. I think that leaves relationships at the other end of the email or website a little bit strained."
He is no internet obsessive, stressing that the emailing of volunteers is a first step towards giving them the chance to do what they really want to do, "knocking on doors".
Away from politics BSD is building deeper relationships with the customer bases of clients such as American Vogue and the Tate, for whom it is compiling more personal stories, the gallery's supporters giving heartfelt accounts of why they gave money to buy a William Blake etching, which was needed to complete a collection.
Despite the political inactivity, Gensemer believes the digital economy is more advanced here than in America, where network television advertising is still king. The internet was unquestionably a deciding factor in the last American election, but with nine weeks left to the day when Britain is expected to go to the polls, our own e-campaigners are running out of time in which to make a similar impact.
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