The Top Priority for a Presidential Campaign's Online Guru? Storytelling.

Rick Burnes
Rick Burnes



Back in 2003, as the 2004 presidential election built up steam,  Nicco Mele  found himself the webmaster for an underfunded, rarely covered campaign.

The candidate's name was  Howard Dean  -- and while he did not go on to win the Democratic primary, he raised around $50 million, nearly toppled the party's front runner (John Kerry), and changed the way presidential candidates use the Internet.

As the campaign's, webmaster and internet strategist, Nicco played a significant role in forming and executing the Dean campaign's trailblazing online campaign.

Since his work on the Dean Campaign, Nicco has spent much of his time building  EchoDitto , an  online communications firm  where he is the founder and president.

I sat down with Nicco earlier this month to learn more about his views on online politics and marketing. A full video recording of our conversation is posted below, but here are a few of the highlights:

Nicco on the importance of storytelling:
Story-telling is central to politics and arguably with marketing period ... [but] it's not just the emphasis on story-telling but the integration of that with what you do online and the way you talk to your supporters and engage them and let them participate in telling the story. That's what really brings it together.

Nicco on the importance of community:
You need to tell an incredible story but also give the people ways to participate in that story ... good candidates just like many good brands will figure out how to do that -- how to both tell a powerful story and let people participate in the story in a way that enhances and grows its power.



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I nterview Transcript (unedited) 

Rick: So, hi, everybody. I'm Rick Burnes from HubSpot and I'm here today with Nicco Mele from EchoDitto, and also one of the wizards behind the Howard Dean's 2004 campaign.

Nicco: That's very kind.

Rick: Thank you for having me here today. So, there's a lot of things to talk about and I wanted to just sort of dive right in and talk a little bit about your experience in 2004, and it sort of become kind of iconic political campaign and the people think about. And you know, it sort of that people remember. Do you know why is that? Why do you think? What did you guys do that was different from other campaigns?

Nicco: Well, that's a fine question. What do we do there was different from other campaigns? Well, you know, we were at the beginning of very low budget campaign and we, you know, most political campaigns depend pretty heavily on television and advertising and direct mail, but that just wasn't an option. We just didn't have the budget to do a lot of either of those things and so the internet was a low cost alternative. It was really, you know, there's a happy accident. We didn't have any other options. So, that where we went and that ended up paying off for us. And you know, we might not have gotten there necessarily except that we noticed a lot of Howard Dean related activity on the internet out of, you know...

Rick: When you say you noticed, so that wasn't stuff that you guys generated?

Nicco: Yeah, so you know, it was at the time in, you know, the spring of 2003, you know, the New York Times would write an article about the Democratic Presidential race and every article you read not just every article was, you know, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and five other presidential candidates. They never mentioned Howard Dean by name. And so, the only place his name would pop up on Google searches or what have you was on blogs. I mean, we kind of noticed this groundswell of activity online, at the same time, we were looking at our limited resources and thinking what are we going to do here? We can't afford much TV or direct mail they resisted natural, you know, that was a natural...

Rick: Was there any kind of resistance to move towards that opening?

Nicco: You know, I think that there were a lot of people on the campaign who had worked in normal...had a lot of campaign experience. I had almost none. There were a lot of people with campaign experience for whom the internet was not something that had ever really been used and is consequently high risk and unproven, but I don't know that they stood and away of it. You know, they were in the same boat we all were, which was we don't have a lot of money. We have a great candidate. How do we maximize? How do we leverage our position here? So, anything that worked was welcome.

Rick: I see. And what worked best? I mean, what were the things that you learned from that have had carried forward and been a part of the work that you've done so far?

Nicco: Well, I mean, I think, two things which aren't very technological in some sense, you know, one is what worked best was a message and a candidate and story. We had a narrative in the campaign. We're telling this beautiful story that was exciting and engaging and inspiring and it evolved Howard Dean and the future of the United States. And it had all kinds of historical references built into it and it was meant to communicate a lot of values and ideas and a vision of the country. And the more time we spent on that, the more we tried to bake that in to our internet communication and strategy the more it paid off.

Rick: So, how do your frame that experience and what you guys did on the Dean campaign with what's happened over the course of the past year with the Obama campaign and the online campaign in general.

Nicco: Yeah, well, I mean, I think the Obama campaign told that incredible story, right? The story that they still talking about. Story everybody...every American wanted to be a part of. The historical nature of the first kind of African-American not any of a party and now President, you know. It was like an incredible thing that everyone wanted to participate in and the Obama campaign to the stellar job of everything from the logo to their e-mail communications to the way they really encouraged people to participate. It was a very tightly woven, you know, cloth where all this different threads came together and told a fantastic narrative and you were a part of that narrative.

Rick: So, the story telling is that central to it? Is that...

Nicco: No, I think story telling is broadly central to politics, right? I mean, even the 30 second, the 60 second spot when it's most powerful is a story telling vehicle. And so the story telling is central to politics and argued with the marketing period, right? And so, you know, the's not just the emphasis on certain time but the integration of that with what you do online and the way you talk to your supporters and engage them and let them participate in how to tell the story. That's what really brings it together.

Rick: What about the community aspect because that's obviously something that people have talked about and how does that kind of interface with the story telling because, you know, on one hand you have a central story that's coming from your campaign. But on the hand part of the dynamic that's important in this kind of situation I would imagine is or you know, and I've observed is the decentralization and then for towering people...yes. So, how do you know is that sort of need for control with the need to tell the story.

Nicco: It's a hard thing to do, right? But you need to tell this incredible story but also give the people ways to participate in that story. To shape its outcome and direction and I think that, you know, good candidates just like many good brands will figure out how to do that, right? How to both tell a powerful story and let people participate in the story in a way that, you know, enhances and grows its power.

Rick: Yup. So, that was your work on the Dean campaign and led into what you're doing now. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Nicco: Sure. So, you know, at EchoDitto, we help non-profits and companies build communities online. What we like to do is take all these emerging media, all this social media on the internet, and figure out how we can integrate it with what you're doing offline with your story with your message and how to bring some of that power to the equation.

Rick: So, can you talk some examples? Companies or your projects?

Nicco: So one client worked very proud of it was Seventh Generation, you know, Seventh Generation is one of the largest makers of non-toxic household goods. You know and there are some who might say that like, you know, non-toxic toilet paper and non-toxic, you know, sink cleaner isn't very exciting. It doesn't lend itself online community, but in fact it does. There's a story to be told about the environment, about the effect that chemicals have on our bodies and about what using products that kind of think in alternative ways about kind of the environment and the chemicals in our cleaning solutions within our homes. How that really can reshape the way we think about it in our world, and so we, you know, about 9 months ago, we launched a new website for Seventh Generation for years we've been helping Seventh Generation with their blog, their corporate blog, the Inspired Protagonist is the name of it. It's by the CEO, Jeffrey Hollander and the response the blog in the way the telling of the story of the company and of the products and of the kind of movement, right? People's participation with that blog led Seventh Generation to be interested in a broader community, and now anybody can go to the Seventh Generation website, join the community and take part in the whole range of conversations everything from how to have a high [UNINTELLIGIBLE] household, you know, to environmentally friendly one and all kinds of different needs.

Rick: So, what were some of the challenge that you guys ran in to setting that up and how do you deal of them?

Nicco: That's a good question. Yeah, there were a lot of challenges along the way. I'd say broadly speaking in the space one of the challenges is that it's a relatively unchartered territory that I, you know, on a private...right and when a client say, "Well, why are you doing that?"

Rick: Yeah.

Nicco: Well, I think it's going to work, right? Or you know, what's the value of that? How do you make that successful? Well, a lot of these things were still really mapping out and plotting and figuring out, right? But so far so good, I mean, you know, we're really proud of our work with Seventh Generation and if you go to the website at, you'll see when you sign up you can see all kinds of fascinating communities online to participate in.

Rick: So, when a client asks you those kinds of questions, how do you respond? I mean, what sort of metrix or data do you guys use to measure what you're doing or just, you know, even if it's not metrix or data, how do you convince them that experimenting is good and this is the right direction to go into?

Nicco: Well, you know, not every client is going to have the appetite for risk, right? But many will, especially, in an environment were a lot of traditional marketing or advertising, you know, the ROI is kind of on the table for being questioned for how cost effective it is and what its impact looks like. And so, in that kind of environment more and more companies are interested in exploring kind of alternative rethinking their marketing and advertising to be more participatory, more of engaging, more content driven, and I think there is this kind of fascinating trend that as, you know, as the models for media companies...the business models for media companies are I'd say significantly under fire, right? A lot of the content that media companies produce has real value, right, to people. Value that may not be able to be monetized through advertising but real value nevertheless. And so, where does a lot of that content end up living and how do we make sure that the valuable information and information that really shapes people's lives and decisions gets out there in ways that are kind of good for all of us, right, and have integrity to them. And so, I definitely think that companies increasingly have a role both in creating content but also asking their consumers, asking their in a customers to help them create content in ways that kind of reshapes the media equation.

Rick: Yup and so, what in this work has carried over from your work with the Dean campaign? What are sort of the, you know, approach or principles that are similar to working online in the political world with working for non-profits that are similar?

Nicco: The simplest one is if you have a terrible candidate, the campaign goes nowhere, right? You have to have a great cause or have to have something with real appeal, right? And with a real passion, so that's pretty straight forward.

Rick: That hasn't always been the case.

Nicco: Yes, that is absolutely true. I also think that, you know, you really have to have a team you like working with. Probably the biggest determinant of success with the client engagement is whether or not we like them and they like us, and if we feel like there's a good working relationship here. That is arguably the single most important thing to whether not a project ends up successful. And so, you know, we're looking, those are two things that are important, I think, broadly speaking.

Rick: So, I guess, last question. How do you encourage people to get started with this kind of thing? I mean if you're a candidate, you know, local candidate who doesn't really know much about campaigning online or you're a business that hasn't worked online much, where do you start?

Nicco: Well, what I tell people to do is find something you're really passionate about. Go find that community online and get engaged. So, this is kind of an odd example, but I'm very passionate about gig posters, about posters from rock shows, right? I collect them, it's this weird obsession of mine but I am really involved in couple of communities online on gig posters, right? And when you participate in a community like that, something that you're very passionate about, you start to learn the dynamics of online communities, right?

Rick: So, you're learning the community before you learn the tools and the sort of methods of working online, would you say that?

Nicco: If you have no experience in the online community space, pick something not work and you want to translate that to your work? Pick something you're very passionate about like the to the point of obsession, like a sports team, I don't care what it is, right? But not work related, something you will personally get very invested in and go find a community online because I guarantee you no matter what it is there is one and get involved, right? Start to pay attention to the conversations, start to contribute, start to be part of that community. And then 3 months from now, step back and say, look at that community dynamic and become more analytical in a sense and say, why am I participating? What am I getting out of this? Where is the value being created? What would make this more successful? And those lessons will translate very well to, you know, whatever you want to do in a work related or corporate dimension.

Rick: It makes a lot of sense. Thank you very much.

Nicco: You're welcome. Hello internets. Hello you too, people.



Topics: Storytelling

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