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Earlier this month, volunteers for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, aided by an extraordinary outpouring of grassroots internet support, made US electoral history by raising more than $4.2m (£2m) in one 24-hour period. "The Web Takes Ron Paul for a Ride", noted The New York Times.

Four years ago, the likes of Howard Dean and John Kerry looked for a lift online from website donors, email updates, high-profile blogs and political gatherings via Meetup.com. We're now watching campaign 2.0, where 20-plus presidential candidates may disagree on Iraq, health care and taxes, but their actions speak as one about the need to add Web 2.0 tools to their communications, fund-raising and outreach strategies.

With less than two months to go before the primary season begins, US candidates are sprinting for donor dollars, media coverage and votes. And they are targeting online communities, social networking sites, YouTube channels, audio clips, Flickr photo feeds, sponsored blogs, self-contained content widgets for supporters' websites and more to connect with all of those constituencies. Democrats John Edwards and Hillary Clinton used website videos to announce their candidacies.

Businesses can take a page from the candidates' social networking frenzy. Web 2.0 applications make it possible to promote a corporate image while creating an opportunity to become more accessible and responsive to customers through new communications channels. But beware: There's an authenticity trap here. Experts say it's difficult to pursue so many new channels without diluting your message and seeming as if you're trying to be everything to everyone.

Online campaign 2.0

The candidates are everywhere you look if you spend time online. Some examples:

Hustings in online communities

On eons.com, an online community for retiring baby boomers, Hillary Clinton has been given blogger and storyteller badges for posting frequently and sharing her life story. On Democrat Barack Obama's personal homepage on BlackPlanet.com you can watch his recent talk show appearances on the Tavis Smiley Show and The Tonight Show to your heart's content. His page on the Latino community MiGente has a link to Obama TV en espagnol.

Full YouTube ahead

All the major candidates have their own YouTube channel (and MySpace and Facebook pages). In addition, a video project called 10 Questions presents voter questions to the candidates, who then post their video answers. As of Nov. 21, Republican Mike Huckabee had uploaded nine responses addressing Internet neutrality, whether the United States is a theocracy and whether marijuana should be legal. (Obama was the only other candidate to post any responses.)

Business card sharing

Republican Rudy Giuliani has 247 connections on social networking site LinkedIn. It's not difficult to conjure a game of "Six Degrees of Rudy" to see if the former New York mayor just might be connected to someone you know.

Second Life

Edwards has built a "campaign central" on Second Life, the 3-D virtual world and even received some virtual news coverage about its opening on the Second Life News Network. John Edwards' Second Life campaign office.

Video mash-ups

Taking a page from Madison Avenue campaigns for candy bars and fast-food restaurants, Republican Mitt Romney is holding a contest for supporters to create video ads using images provided by the campaign site and to select the best. (Such an event shows both upsides and risks; SlateV, the video service of Slate Magazine, produced a short parody of the project.)

Games

On Republican John McCain's website, you can play the animated "John & Hillary Game", and try and match questions with the correct candidates. (The game creators made the answers difficult to get wrong.)

Still waiting for campaign killer app

But while Web 2.0 tools open up more channels to engage voters, including channels supporters open up themselves, the new applications also emphasise reaching the smaller markets, rather than the mass. "Politics today has become about [getting] hundreds of small hits rather than one big hit," observes Paul Gillin, a social media consultant and author of ‘The New Influencers’.

"Whatever they can do in the world to get that edge, they'll do," says Alan Webber, a customer experience analyst at Forrester Research. Edwards, for example, "has the longest list of social networking sites I've ever seen," 23 at last count, Webber adds.

Therein lies a potential quagmire. Although Web 2.0 applications offer the ability to go after a targeted audience, especially those age 30 and younger, and reach them in a fast, efficient, easy and less expensive way, Webber believes the message itself is getting diluted. That's true in Edwards' case, Webber says, claiming that his presence on a vast number of social networking sites shows he is "trying to be everything to everybody."

Gillin adds that the Edwards' campaign is using Twitter, a mobile blog that lets users send group IMs to people who subscribe to this service. The campaign's entries are sporadic compared to say, a teenager posting "tweets" on a MySpace page.

But Edwards is not the only one who is spreading himself all over the web. Webber believes most of the candidates are guilty of not addressing the issues people care about in a substantive way online. "Everybody in politics is so worried about that last vote that... we lose a lot of the coherence and understanding of who the candidate is, what they actually stand for and what their actual message is because they go across so many different mediums and channels."

Candidates' market share on the web

The following Hitwise.com data ranks US market share of website visitors for major presidential candidates from a sample of 10 million US Internet users. The data is for the week ending 17 November, 2007.

Democrats

Candidate Market Share:

      Barak Obama 28.47%
        Hillary Clinton 25.72%
          John Edwards 18.31%
            Dennis Kucinich 9.36%
              Bill Richardson 6.36%
                Joe Biden 6.24%
                  Chris Dodd 3.14%
                    Mike Gravel 2.41%

                  Republicans

                  Candidate Market Share:

                      Ron Paul 42.85%
                        Mike Huckabee 25.91%
                          Fred Thompson 6.89%
                            Mitt Romney 6.82%
                              Rudy Giuliani 5.61%
                                John McCain 5.44%
                                  Tom Tancredo 3.91%
                                    Duncan Hunter 2.57%

                                  User generated enthusiasm

                                  When you consider Ron Paul's haul of donor dollars, there's no denying Web 2.0 offers new and addictive ways for political junkies to get information about the candidates they might not otherwise hear on the nightly news anywhere, anytime and in so many places. So many blogs. So many YouTube videos. So many social networking links. Meetup.com still offers notices on gatherings for the like-minded, and Eventful.com seeks to generate demand online for candidates to show up in locations around the country.

                                  Gillin says Web 2.0 applications are making it easy for the candidates to spread their message virally because "you're leveraging your enthusiasts to do your campaigning for you."

                                  Flash back to 2004, when the web was merely a tool for communication between the campaigns and their supporters "and the only feedback mechanism was to [respond to] small contributors who could give money and ideas,' says Robert Shrum, a retired political consultant who advised several Democratic presidential nominees, including John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. Shrum, who is now a senior fellow at New York University, says the current group of candidates is building on what happened four years ago.

                                  In 2004, Democrat Howard Dean and other presidential hopefuls launched fund-raisers online, and Meetup.com provided a bulletin board for like-minded citizens to gather and discuss their favourite candidates.

                                  This year's tools represent "phase two of that work, you make it far more possible for them to communicate with each other and the rest of universe," Shrum says.

                                  Shrum believes one of the most effective uses of Web 2.0 applications is the ability to create an online ad campaign and not have to spend millions of dollars running television spots. He notes that Hillary Clinton, for example, posted a spot on the Web the day after a televised presidential debate, showing her and former President Bill Clinton in a diner, à la the final episode of The Sopranos, which Shrum says was well-produced and got her a lot of attention.

                                  Webber questions the authenticity of these campaign-produced pieces, calling them a series of self-serving messages. "I think voters have looked and seen what's out there and they realise it's just another bullhorn for [the candidates] to tout their less-than-coherent and less-than-completely truthful message."

                                  Webber argues that before social networking became a trend, political bloggers were "digging the dirt to get the honest truth out there and what they saw with these candidates." With the advent of social networking sites, the candidates are able to create pages that often are nothing more than "ideological mouthpieces and masks," he says.

                                  Shrum says he expects the web medium to be a self-correcting force, with people creating websites to counter positions (and candidates) they don't like. "The web has a way of being self-correcting," he says, and the next development will be "sites that critique the sites."

                                  In a "what-if" scenario, web 2.0 would have been particularly effective in an election as close as the Kerry-Bush battle in 2004, Shrum maintains. "Everything would have made a difference - [the ability to] create a virtual community in Ohio, for example," where a small margin carried the swing state for Bush. Shrum predicts that as advances are made in voice recognition technology, in coming elections voters will see more effective real-time blogs and more real-time conversations.

                                  Candidates knocking on every digital door they can

                                  But in the here and now, the candidates are racing to reach out and connect with people wherever they can find them online. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has posted more than 400 videos on YouTube since January that have received 2.5 million page views, according to Stephen Smith, director of Online Communications for the Romney campaign, in Boston.

                                  The Romney campaign has built its own social network so when someone signs up on the site, he gets a username and password and can create events, invite friends, solicit small donations among his friends, family and coworkers and customise his own profile, Smith says. The campaign has also built "Mitt TV," with 10 different channels, each programmed with content such as video essays on immigration, lowering taxes, his opposition to same-sex marriage, and health care, as well as ads.

                                  But Smith acknowledges that his organisation doesn't always know how effective the various online methods are. "Sometimes it's difficult to gauge whether they're working," he says, although he is encouraged by the number of responses people post.

                                  So businesses, beware. Web 2.0 applications can be very effective marketing tools, "but you have to balance the marketing aspect with the creation and development and nurturing of the relationship," Webber says.

                                  "We want to read [the message] and listen to it for a while, but we want to engage with someone in a conversation about what our problems are and how we can solve them," Webber says. Social networking technologies may offer the ability for dialogue, but whether both sides are willing to engage in that conversation is a question for analysis later in the 2008 race.