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Why did the Fred Thompson Blog Work?

As most of you know, The Bivings Group was a part of the team that built Fred Thompson’s Presidential campaign website. Our main client contact on the project, Michael Turk, has a good post up rounding up the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the online program we all put together. It is worth a read.

In the piece, Turk points out that one of the most successful aspects of the program was the campaign blog, the Fred File. He writes:

As an example of the strength of Thompson’s online effort, look at the Thompson campaign blog and you’ll see something remarkable for GOP candidates – comments. And not just a few comments, but hundreds and even thousands of comments.

Rudy’s blog doesn’t allow comments. Romney’s gets a few per post. Ron Paul just recently launched a blog (despite the fact that blog software is largely free). He currently gets between a handful and a few dozen comments.

I don’t think this indicates a lack of supporter enthusiasm as much as it indicates that the campaigns have created a blog with nothing to say on sites that are so scrubbed of interesting content they’re almost sterile. Most of the posts are rehashed press releases, rehashed campaign e-mails, or occasionally a video so overscripted it becomes almost completely unwatchable.

I think Turk is right on here. With any successful blog, 90% of the battle is producing readable content and engaging with readers. Many, many campaigns want a blog in theory but don’t have the stomach to do the heavy lifting that will make it actually work.  The Thompson campaign, lead by staffers Sean Hackbarth and Austin Walne, deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the success of the Fred File. But I also think there were some small, more technical decisions that were made that helped give the blog a greater chance to succeed.

First, the blog was built in a real blogging platform, WordPress (WordPress Mu specifically). On a lot of political sites you’ll see blogs that are built as an extension of the overall Content Management System. The results is blogs that don’t really look or act like blogs (no RSS feed, no pinging, no plug-ins, no categories, no comments, etc.). Using WordPress gave us all the functionality we needed out of the box and made it relatively easy to add new features.

Second, in order to post comments users had to create an account using our main volunteer sign up form. There were no anonymous comments and people’s full names appeared next to their words. In addition to that, Turk made the decision early on to force people to have site accounts to even view comments. Due to these decisions, the site had almost no trolls, as you had to be pretty committed to even view the comments, much less post. Forcing people to use their real names creates a sense of accountability in posters, creating a really civil environment. We also included the number of comments a user had made next to their name, which lead people to welcome in newbies and provided a way to reward those who spent lots of time in the comments. The atmosphere was like a comfy neighborhood bar. This is in stark contrast to the comment areas on a lot of campaign and newspaper sites, which come closer to the chaos of Times Square on New Years Eve.

Third, we used a plugin called WP-Sticky to pin important posts to the top of the blog. The intent in installing this was so that we could highlight our more substantive posts (those written by Fred himself or announcements). The unintended consequence was that long discussions would occur around these featured posts, as people just sort of hung out and read and posted comments almost like you see on a message board.

Anyway, the content drove the bus here. But I think these smaller decisions that were made helped create a good environment for the Fredheads and contributed to the success of the Fred File.