Rebranding via Blogging
It's trendy to speak of politics in terms of branding, with the Republican and conservative brands widely believed to be in need of a tune-up. Hence The Next Right, a blog aimed at helping conservatives recapture their mojo. The site's founding editors include Patrick Ruffini, a veteran of the Bush/Cheney 2004 organization (and a prominent voice in this article), and Soren Dayton, late of John McCain's presidential campaign. The third founder, Jon Henke, worked for a number of big-name Republicans and is now employed by the Arlington, VA firm New Media Strategies. I spoke with him last week.
CIO Insight: What are you trying to do with The Next Right?
Jon Henke: Our view is that the Right is in many ways broken, and we need to rethink what the brand is, what the strategy is for the coalition, what the coalition itself looks like, and our tactics -- what do you, how do you use the Internet, how do you organize people and mobilize them, how do you sell the message, how do you frame the message.
CIOI: What happened to the Right that makes a site like yours necessary?
Henke: People on the Left would like to believe that the philosophy has failed. People on the Right would like to believe the people have failed, if we just elect better people we'll be fine. I think both of those are off the mark. Fundamentally what failed was the movement itself. We erected a movement based on two ideas: elect Republicans, to limit government. They elected Republicans, and then they didn't have a politically viable way to actually limit government, and so they settled for the first -- and so instead of a vast right wing conspiracy we had a half-vast right wing conspiracy.
What needs to be fixed is the movement needs to organize itself to actually accomplish the second part of the goal. Just electing Republicans is not enough, what you get is a corrupt Republican Party that is not an effective vehicle for the actual goals of the movement.
CIOI: How can a blog help rebrand conservatism?
Henke: The real value of the Internet is that it allows you to target an audience. The people who read the Next Right are the influential activists, the people inside the Beltway, the coalition members, the political officers, the people at think tanks and advocacy organizations, the people who are most active within campaigns. We're aimed at online and offline influentials.
CIOI: What are you telling them?
Henke: The world is happening first online. Your opposition is communicating online, they are rolling out their product online, and they are focus-grouping on the Internet to find out what they need to be doing. The things that are going to drop onto your press secretary's desk next week are bubbling upon the web this week, or last month.
CIOI: Any early signs of success, any trophies on the wall yet?
Henke: We are getting a lot of feedback from groups, think tanks, who want us to take a look at their situation and talk about it. Recently we took a shot at Americans for Tax Reform, which awarded [Alaska Congressman] Don Young a Taxpayer Hero award -- there are few people in Congress who deserve an award less than Don Young. There was immediate discussion in the comments. That kind of thing leads to better communication between activists and advocacy groups.
CIOI: Where do you want this to go?
Henke: We all approach it differently, each of us comes from a different perspective, a different part of the coalition of the Right. I belong to the libertarian, the leave-us-alone coalition, a group that does not feel that the party is representing it or telling its story. The right side of the blogosphere is dominated by libertarians - and I don't mean that with a capital L, but the limited government, leave-me-alone libertarians. That represents where the future of the Republican Party could lie. The infrastructure could be built on line, if the Party can recognize and take advantage of that environment
CIOI: You guys are playing catch-up. How did liberals take the lead online?
Henke: The web is conducive to insurgency movements. That's been the Democrats for the last eight years. They were out of power and needed different tools. Progressives perceived that the political culture had shifted, but the Democratic Party did not shift with it, so they began telling a story about a different vision of the Democratic Party and the political system. They made fundamental criticisms of both parties and the media, and rallied a lot of people to them. They erected a very effective mechanism for bringing the party in their direction, they created a gravitational pull so the political leaders and the money people had to come to them. That has fundamentally reshaped the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, on the other hand, was perceived by most in its base as being a more effective machine.
CIOI: So there's no ideological basis for the gap?
Henke: People forget that the Right was ahead online in the '90s. Sites like NewsMax, Drudge Report, and World Net Daily were very successful. They still have large audiences, but never really made the transition to Web 2.0. They're one-way: we present the news, you read it, end of transaction. The Right does a lot of things well online, like microtargeting of voters, things the Left is just doing now. That the Left is catching up in those areas is a major accomplishment, and the Right is going to have to think about what the Left does well: mobilizing communities around specific ideas, and messaging to the media and the base.
CIOI: How big a factor will the Net be in the presidential election?
Henke: Incredibly important, but very hard to measure. A lot of the impact goes beyond a blog reaching a reader, to the second-order effects of people having opinions shaped and frames set by what's happening online. And the impact of social networks of involved voters, who turn around and influence other voters, will be profound. Obama has been so effective at gathering people online in actual communities, not just segments - Hispanics are a segment, but Hispanics for Obama in Florida are a community - and getting people together that way will turn online activism into offline results.
CIOI: I'm surprised that more campaigns aren't using the Net as effectively.
Henke: It's difficult to distribute the things that work. Large organizations like to adopt best practices that can be used by anybody, but a lot of things that are effective online are not easily duplicated - the natural interaction, the person-to-person communication. Campaigns tend to want templates and data dumps. If the vision is spamming people with press releases, it will have the appearance of what works, but it won't work. People have the idea you can push a button to say "make it viral," but you have to provide something of value to the people you want involved - prestige, traffic, ideological progress - and in an attention economy, you have to get it to them quickly. That way, they'll push it to the audience you want to reach. That's what makes the Internet a social medium, they get value from distributing it.
In traditional communications, the organization figures out a message and an audience, finds a delivery mechanism, and broadcasts it. On the net, the people are the broadcasters.
The Internet is not about reaching everybody in America, it's about reaching the people who already care what you have to say. The branding is not about trying to sell people on something, but identifying an aspect of your company, campaign, candidate, or issue that is real, and finding a way to connect that to the target audience.