"It is amazing what one country boy with a view of a cow pasture can do with blogs, Yahoo groups, Meetup, and Web sites," says Eddie Ratliff, national chairman of Draft Mark Warner. Ratliff, together with cofounder Steve Deak, created Draft Mark Warner, a grassroots effort to urge former Virginia governor Mark Warner to run for president of the United States in 2008.
"I started working on the Draft Mark Warner site on election night 2004 and built it up quickly," Ratliff says. "Then I went onto lots of blogs all over the country and wrote comments about Mark Warner. At that time he was still Governor of Virginia. So pretty soon people were reading stuff on the site about how Virginia was the best-managed state in America."
Ratliff understands the vital importance of a U.S. presidential candidate building a national online support base. He and his team created the Mark Warner for President blog, a series of Yahoo groups, and Meetups with supporters around the country, and they have coordinated a strategy of active participation to support Warner on hundreds of political blogs. "I don’t want to overstate our importance," Ratliff says, "but there's no doubt that a presidential candidate cannot win without a following. We have been the group to get the Mark Warner a grassroots following. We're campaigning all over the country. We can't close the deal, but people will recognize the name Mark Warner." While not every blog post is a direct result of the work of the Draft Mark Warner organization, a recent check of Technorati shows well over ten thousand blogs that mention Mark Warner.
As Ratliff and his team have built support over several years, the Draft Mark Warner organization's position as an independent group (not affiliated with Mark Warner in any way) presents interesting challenges. "It just got big," Ratliff says. "We are the preeminent Warner site at this time, so we have to be very careful because we are doing this without taking direction from anybody. I have a whole team of people sorting out Governor Warner’s positions, and I have them all written out, but I am afraid to post them because we don’t actually have contact with Warner himself."
Draft Mark Warner relies on financial donations to pay the bills, and Ratliff uses the money to build more and more online grassroots support. "At a certain point, I had to bring on people to answer email and to organize in states," he says. "Now we've got organizations in something like 38 states."
Ratliff is a master at understanding how blogs can be used to build support. "National campaigns are not started two or three years in advance," he says. "I started my Draft Mark Warner site four years before the 2008 presidential election." At the time I interviewed Ratliff, the cycle was just getting going and no candidates had yet declared their intention to run in the 2008 election. "All the indicators are that Governor Mark Warner is running," Ratliff says.
"I've been running a race, hard, that’s not even mine for two years for a person I've only met a few times," Ratliff says. "The real goal is to have a campaign in place with workers in the locations that are important. I would expect that our organization will merge into his formal organization once he declares his candidacy."
Ratliff's success as the de facto Mark Warner for President organizing group has given him a powerful position as Warner becomes better known. "Just by building support via blogs and the Internet, Mark Warner receives some twenty invitations for each one that he can accept," Ratliff says. "All we do is pass messages on to him. And now I've got important people reaching out to me because they want to get closer to Mark Warner. For example I'm taking senators and governors to New Hampshire for some events in a few weeks.
"You'd be surprised what one individual can do when he applies himself," says Ratliff. "Even one person without any political experience can make a huge difference. There is absolutely no way that I could do this without blogs and the Web. I use the Internet to raise money, recruit grass roots supporters, and connect with other organizations. You couldn’t do this with mail-and-fax days. When I read in The Philadelphia Enquirer that the Draft Mark Warner movement is gaining momentum, it proves that blogging and the Web work."
Colin Delaney, an expert in online political advocacy, agrees with the power of blogging for political candidates as well as advocacy groups. "Even a tiny organization can turn out really good pieces that can then influence policy," he says. "The opinion blogs are important. Bloggers seem to take candidates who have their own blogs more seriously. They seem to reward those who are members of the club a little more. At the same time, if you sound like an idiot, they will still make fun of you!"
The Draft Mark Warner example clearly shows that making a concerted effort to leave comments on other people's blogs works. Although the example is from politics, a similar strategy to comment and therefore influence the thinking of bloggers should work for most any organization. But it takes an understanding of blogs and blogging etiquette to pull it off without sounding like a corporate shill. Focus on what the blog post says, and comment on that. As appropriate, you can point to your blog (if you have one) or your Web site as your contact information.