So far this cycle, two candidates for President have fully embraced the concept of user-generated content: John Edwards and Barack Obama. Barack Obama has his own social network and allows users to create their own blogs hosted on his site. John Edwards hosts a DailyKos style blog network that allows any user to start their own diary/blog on his site.

Is this stuff working?

It is too early to say. We know that Barack Obama’s website is getting a lot of traffic when compared to Hillary Clinton’s more static website. We know that Obama exceeded fundraising expectations during the first quarter of 2007 and that John Edwards more or less met his. Obama also raised a ton of his money on the Internet from small donors.

But we’re still sort of picking at scraps here. So following are the big questions about user-generated content and my attempt to answer them based on what we know so far and my own bias.

(1) Should campaigns be worried about the “out there” things their supporters write in the user-generated areas of the official campaign site?

I say no. Barack Obama had a mini-controversy a month or so back and I’m sure people are scanning through the Edwards and Obama blogs looking for outrageous content written by users. But you know what, I don’t think it matters.

On these sites, the user generated content is clearly marked and attributed. The official content is the official content and the user generated content is the user generated content. It is really easy to tell the two apart. I think we are getting to a point where reporters and regular citizens are smart enough to know the difference.

As Mike Turk and others have mentioned, Republicans worry about this stuff a lot. They need to relax. People are smart enough to understand what is going on.

(2) Are campaigns giving up control of the message when they allow users to create content on the official site? Isn’t that dangerous?

For a lot of people on the GOP side, I think the lesson of the Bush-Cheney 2004 victory is that tight control of message online and a top-down structure works. I think this has led many Republicans to be very wary of allowing supporters to create content on any campaign sanctioned website.

There are certainly things to be learned from the Bush-Cheney program. Organization and structure are good. You don’t want to have supporters conducting a lot of activity with no purpose. But that doesn’t mean user generated content is inherently bad or distracting. I see the McCain campaign as an example of Republicans learning the wrong lessons online. You can’t apply a top down structure to tools that are meant to be lateral.

In 2007, I think it is possible to embrace user-generated content AND run a campaign that focuses people on the end goal of winning elections. Embracing user-generated content doesn’t mean you lack focus and it doesn’t mean you give up all control. As mentioned in point #1, people are able to tell the difference between official campaign and user generated content at this point.
Most importantly, the user generated content is always pretty buried in the depths of a site. So in most cases I don’t think there are many opportunities for casual visitors to get confused about the message of the campaign. User generated content is a way for the hard core supporters to reach out to their friends and family. To tap into the long tale. People understand what they are reading. They understand that they are seeing what their friends and family think and not official campaign materials.

You can provide clear messaging and focus on your main website and provide tools that allow for user generated content. The Obama website is a good example of the using user generated content in a focus way.

(3) Does user generated content work? Does it build support and result in more donations, volunteers, etc.?

This is the key question and no one really knows yet.

I think it does though. Allowing open user-generated content provides volunteers with a way to participate in the campaign in a real way and tools to truly evangelize for the candidate. Fake social tools like McCain is selling don’t do that the way letting people create their own, uncensored content does.

Think about it: if only a few thousand people participate, aren’t you truly empowering these folks to carry your message for you? And won’t they each reach five other people who might start their own site blog, give money or otherwise participate?

It seems to me that truly allowing your supporters to carry your message for you will ultimately result in more supporters, more donations and ultimately better online results.

Do you disagree? Are there questions I’m missing?

Update: I edited this post to try to make it slightly more coherent and to link to additional documents. Every blogger writes posts now and then that just don’t come out right. This is one of those for me. A bit of a ramblilng mess. Oh well. I tried.

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.