Can social-networking sites motivate volunteers to raise money and recruit activists for major U.S. political parties?
That's what the Republican National Committee had in mind earlier this year when it launched MyGOP, a Web 2.0-style service seeking strong personal involvement by its visitors.
I wrote last week about a similar experiment, PartyBuilder, that recently went live with high expectations by the Democratic Party. The experience of MyGOP, however, provides a cautionary tale for the Democrats -- or any organization or business that sees the Web as an easy medium to master.
Raising the Flag for the Republican Faithful
Since MyGOP has been live for a few months longer than PartyBuilder, commentators have had a longer period to critique its effectiveness as a political intake tool. And even many committed Republican stalwarts, to MyGOP's chagrin, have had tough words for the G.O.P.'s effort.
As a case in point, MyGOP urged participants to hold house parties on May 22 to raise funds for the Republican cause. The results weren't quite what were expected:
Prizes. The party offered Apple iPods to the top five fund-raisers (a prize that raised some eyebrows since Steve Jobs is known as a liberal and Al Gore sits on Apple's board);
Tallies. When the results came in, the top five party activists had raised the sum of only $1,224 -- far below the total hoped for in this public networking process;
Net Gain or Loss. Since iPods list for about $300 each, there was much talk that the party had "lost money" on the top five fund-raisers. But the rules offered the prizes only to activists who collected at least 10 contributions, which only two of the five achieved. So the party may actually have made a small gain.
Michael Turk, the eCampaign Director for Bush-Cheney '04 (and then, for a time, the Republican National Committee itself), wrote about MyGOP's May 22 event in a subsequent blog entry. "If the RNC was able to link this to a fundraising appeal for candidates," he said, "and you could pick the candidates you support and only raise funds for them, rather than for the party, I think it would be a lot more successful."
In defense of MyGOP, however, the Republican leader also pointed out that the top house-party volunteers are "10 people who are communicating to nearly 1,000 others on behalf of the GOP."
Plans to Link MyGOP to Networking Sites
The RNC's current eCampaign Director, Patrick Ruffini, told me in a telephone interview yesterday that MyGOP will grow beyond its current incarnation.
"We will continue to expand this," he says, "in ways that technology develops, which obviously develops at breakneck speed."
Ruffini predicts that MyGOP will integrate with today's most popular social-networking sites, mentioning MySpace, Facebook, and other giant meet-and-greet portals.
"We're looking at ways we can leverage people on our network and in other networks," he said. Information posted at MyGOP might automatically appear on a Republican activist's page at a major networking site, Ruffini speculates. "There's all kinds of APIs out there, and we've seen the success of widgets." Widgets are small programs that exchange content between sites, supported by application programming interfaces like the one Facebook announced last month.
Asked whether criticisms of MyGOP's house-party effort were valid, Ruffini replied, "People use their [MyGOP] pages for many different things. One is fund-raising but others are recruiting. It's also saved us money by not having to place ads on other sites."
Looking Ahead to November
Both the G.O.P.'s Ruffini and PartyBuilder director Josh McConaha, who I interviewed last week, express confidence that their early attempts at social networking will influence this fall's races for Congress. Ultimately, their sites are test runs for 2008, when both parties face wide-open primaries and the eventual winner of the White House is anyone's guess.
When invited to say how many participants MyGOP has registered thus far, Ruffini answered, "It's fluctuating. Not everyone chooses to make themselves public. It's in the thousands."
By contrast, McConaha told me that the Democrats' new service had signed up approximately 10,000 registrants in the first seven days after its unveiling and continues to grow. Raw numbers aren't the whole story, but the two competing services' growth rates are certain to affect their effectiveness over time.
What the Web Hath Wrought
Whether MyGOP or PartyBuilder becomes the bigger or better service is hard to project. What's clear so far, however, is that it's more difficult to create a wildly popular networking site than it may first appear.
For more information on MyGOP, see its page at the RNC. To visit PartyBuilder, see its DNC page.