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Distributed Campaigns: A View of the Digital Campaign of the Future

As the Democratic primary winds down, the political campaign season continues to heat up. Lead in part by the Dean campaign, technology has taken a front-stage spotlight in this year’s political action. While we have yet to see technology single-handedly win a campaign or change public policy, it is clear that the Internet is beginning to have a more profound effect on how constituents and politicians shape and deliver messages.

In his March 1 article, Hillel Korin provided an excellent overview of the technologies that Dean used successfully to invigorate the grassroots, including Meetups, Blogs, and House Parties. All of these new Web-centric techniques have effectively shown how the Internet can be a catalyst which brings people together both online and in the real world.

A key takeaway for e-philanthropists from the Dean experiment is the following: Dean brought in more than $4 million in contributions via the Internet from donors averaging only $75 per contribution, in just a few months. This didn’t happen by chance. Instead, this came from thoughtful preparation and construction of a distributed network of individuals who rose from the grassroots, and who believed they could help create change from the bottom-up, not the top-down. This idea that technology can provide a framework that provides information flow to be decentralized is called “distributed campaigning”

The concept of network effects is essential to the success of distributed campaigns. The term “network effects” simply means that as a new participant joins a campaign or cause, the value of the campaign network increases exponentially. As an easy example, take the telephone. If you’re the only person in the world to own a telephone, it’s pretty useless. However, when your friend (and many others) purchases a telephone, it rapidly becomes more useful.

This is where distributed campaigns come into the picture. A distributed campaign is one in which:

  • Web content is primarily created by the grassroots, not a national headquarters
  • Information is easily and freely distributed among Web sites in the campaign
  • Bi-directional communication is encouraged between the grassroots and the headquarters

E-philanthropists can use distributed campaigns to reach out to those in the “margins”, people who may have heard about their organizations but have not taken an action within it. The goal of the distributed campaign is to use the Web as a social networking medium to bring these “margins” into the circle of donors and advocates.

For instance, a national headquarters of a large environmental group might find that it is having difficulties engaging its local chapters across the country. By deploying a distributed campaign of Web sites that interconnect each other and the national headquarters, the national chapter can provide localized information easily for each chapter, while at the same time gain feedback and content from the local chapters to learn more about what drives engagement on the local level.

Distributed campaigns normally have the following functionalities included:

  • Ability to allow local groups to easily use the Web to attract more donations and contributions
  • Blogs
  • Easy content creation by the grassroots
  • Syndicated updates from the national headquarters
  • Meetup-like functions that allow coordination between online and offline functions
  • Data collection tools for the headquarters to better evaluate their local grassroots efforts

While it is clear we are just now seeing the early stages of development in distributed campaigns, the Dean campaign and others have shown that too often large national organizations sometimes ignore their most valuable resource: the grassroots. If organizations find ways to encourage localized content and ideas, while at the same time coordinating these local contributions with a larger picture, our industry might be on the cusp of something revolutionary.

About the Contributor: Ryan Ozimek

As the founder of a growing Web technology group serving the public sector, I’m using my skills to empower organizations to “do good.”

With a focus on open source technologies, I’m constantly looking for ways in which the Internet can better serve the greater good, and more specifically the non-profit sector.

My specialties: content management systems, non-profits, open source, information systems, web design, application and database development, technology strategy, technology policy, and domestic policy.

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