Keeping conversations… well, conversational

Canvasser with an iPadYou might think it should be obvious: when you’re using a conversational medium, stay conversational. But shiny new tactics can derail even the best campaign strategists… including those on Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign.

In a must-read post on Slate, John Dickerson reports on his interview with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in the afterglow of the President’s November 6th victory. One topic that came up: iPads on the doorstep.

The Obama campaign got some media attention early in the campaign over the way volunteers would use iPads to show ads directly to voters during their door-to-door canvass. But according to Messina, they actually dropped the practice early on:

One of the products that the Obama team discarded was the iPad at the door. When volunteers tried to use the iPad to talk to voters—showing them a video or other material—it didn’t work. “Showing ads at the door didn’t make sense. It was about having conversations. We trained our people to have longer conversations.”

The idea made sense at first glance: “Let’s bypass the media filters! We can take our ads right onto people’s welcome mats!” But the problem is, people are used to face-to-face conversations being conversational: we’re accustomed to talking with people, not having to stand there and watch an ad. Especially if it’s 30 seconds of Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful”.

It’s probably a good thing they didn’t try that approach much later in the campaign. Door-to-door canvassers aren’t guaranteed a friendly reception at the best of times; showing up at someone’s house to show them a campaign ad in Ohio in the last week of October would probably have gotten a few of them punched. (Note to anyone whose immediate reaction to that was “Ooo! Earned media!” — you, my friend, need to conduct a searching inventory of your soul.)

The next time you’re tempted to treat a conversational medium like a broadcast channel, think twice. A Twitter feed that just pushes out links to your news releases or a Facebook Page that posts nothing but campaign ads may not alienate people, but it will certainly miss a valuable opportunity to deepen relationships with your supporters and audience.

And notice what the Obama campaign’s response to the failure of their canvasser-as-advertising-channel approach. They didn’t go back to their previous practice. They trained their people to have longer conversations.

In other words, they refocused their efforts on the medium’s strengths. That has implications for training your own social media staff and volunteers. But it also suggests that, if you run election campaigns with a door-to-door canvass, you may want to pay a lot more attention to just what your canvassers are doing on the doorstep.

For decades now, the conventional wisdom has seen election canvassing as an almost purely organizational tool: a way to learn whether a voter is planning to vote for our candidate – so that on E-day, we can ensure that we get them to the polling station. As far as persuasive communications goes, the leaflet the canvasser delivers does all the talking. (In fact, canvassers are discouraged from getting engrossed in conversation; the name of the game is to mark up your list as quickly as possible.)

The Obama experience suggests we can do more — that in an era where networked digital conversations are taking on growing importance, face-to-face conversation can be important as well in persuading voters. And that suggests campaigns may want to do a lot more to equip their volunteers with the conversational skills and information they need to make those conversations count.

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