“TV-ing the Web”: The GOP’s coming problem is more than ethnic diversity

Vincent Harris
July 28, 2015

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to be a guest of Google at last week’s VidCon conference in Anaheim, California. The experience can be best summed up by a moment on my first night: a band of screaming 14-year olds almost trampled over one another as they fought for a glimpse and coveted Snapchat video with a YouTube celebrity. As the (unknown to me) celebrity stepped out of their car (bodyguards in tow), the band of half-shaven and purple-haired teens swarmed the car in mob fashion. Their fanatical screams were reminiscent of how I would imagine my father at a Jimmy Buffett concert, or my wife if she ever met Taylor Swift.

VincentHarris, Vincent Harris, Vince Harris, Vincent Harris Media
Vincent Harris Media from Austin, Texas in front of the company mural.

To this generation, and increasingly to people of all ages, the old way of consuming media is dying. In some cases, it is dead. We are living in a post-television age for younger voters. This is an age where mundane aspects of life are shared with ones closest friends on Snapchat and where YouTube stars who film themselves eating cereal in their bathtubs are getting an audience with the President of the United States.

One of the most informative panels consisted of three people all in their late teenage years. They described the way in which they subscribed to YouTube channels/content in the same way I once loyally watched Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. One panelist stated, “I wake up every morning and watch YouTube the same way you watch television. I expect to see videos from my channels of people shopping at the grocery store or cooking dinner. When a channel isn’t updated every day, fans get disappointed.” Voyeurism is alive, well, and almost….expected.

A much quoted study at the conference even highlighted that the influence of YouTube stars on teenagers was larger than the likes of celebrities like David Beckham, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift. While the media, academics, and pundits have all discussed at length the potential coming problems for Republicans with changing ethnic and social demographics, there has been little discussion of another basic issue in the party: we are dramatically behind in the ways we connect with voters. Put plainly: the Republican idea of online video content is largely predicated on putting a television ad on YouTube.

While teenagers are thinking of YouTube channels as reality television, Republicans are thinking of them as a place for stale television interviews, scripted to-camera policy dialogues, and :30 second made-for-tv spots. Political video content has changed very little since President Eisenhower launched the first well-known spot in 1952. Focus groups and polls have certainly helped perfect the tone, message, verbiage, and presentation, but political video content has remained scripted, polished, and largely inauthentic.

These tactics worked of course when voters had no choice but to watch broadcast news and the forced political ads that accompanied them. Princeton’s Markus Prior writes in Post-Broadcast Democracy about how media choice and fragmentation have led to a loss in political knowledge in the electorate. When voters began to have the option of watching Kim Kardashian over Walter Cronkite, guess whom they chose? Today’s coming of age voters have even more choices. They are helping create and shape celebrity. The modern voter expects video content online to be delivered in an unprecendented niche, tailored, authentic, and interactive format. A format in which their favorite stars share every aspect of their life. There is an expectation of transparency in the highest form.

Republican campaigns, institutions, and advocacy groups are doing a great job of “tv-ing the internet”, while missing the key differences in the style, substance, and type of content that needs to be created for younger audiences. When a voter has a choice to watch a video of a cat-playing DJ, a YouTube celebrity’s audience inspired morning show, or a :30 second television ad about entitlement spending, which one do you think they will watch in today’s world of choice? They have a choice. They are choosing.

The party should begin changing its content creation strategy and looking towards building and growing creative talent that understand the need for unique content. Content that is on message and fits with our party’s brand, but that breaks through the clutter. Content that is created for these unique digital verticals. Content that is authentic. Content that is sticky enough to hold a voters attention without always needing paid media behind it. Would anyone less than 40 share a traditional Republican television ad with their friends? No. Republicans cannot simply stick a few television ads on YouTube and check a box. We are doing it wrong.

What if the Republican party or outside organizations began a scholarship program for young videographers? Those who want to go to art or technical school and learn programs like Adobe Premiere or Final Cut? The truth is, we can’t continue to operate a model where content is shot and filmed twice during a campaign cycle and expect it to last in perpetuity. We need as a party to get candidates bought in and help them understand that more content means more eyeballs. More content means larger reach and it means a larger microphone. Exciting and engaging content means more influence. Online content lives forever. We need to remember that there is more to a video than just the view count and more content helps with items such as ever important search results.

Hat tip to groups like IJReview who understand this and are using video as a rapid-response tool. The Republican party at all levels needs to spend staff resources, money, and time in developing content that people actually want to watch. Our current model might not fail us in 2016, in 2018, or even 2020 but the day of reckoning is coming. Those screaming 14-year old purple haired teens…in 4 years, they’ll vote, and it’s going to be people like Smosh who impact their decision, not Bill O’Reilly, …..or even John Stewart.

Vincent Harris is CEO of Harris Media and Chief Digital Strategist for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and has been guest faculty at Baylor University. Previously he ran digital operations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.