The Unharnessed Power of Social Networks

While radio stations keep hanging on to the hope that listeners will return -- along with advertisers -- we can all learn a lesson from the Barack Obama election campaign.

Obama, building on Democratic predecessor Howard Dean's early Internet efforts, took fundraising to a new level. It's news enough that Obama was able to outdo Hillary Clinton and Republican rival John McCain in raising money on the Internet.

But the real story is what happened on day one after the election.

Obama directed his 10 million contacts -- emails, contributors, cell phone numbers -- right over to a new site he started called

Stay with me -- this is not just about politics -- it's about harnessing the power of social networking.

All during the campaign, Obama and other Internet-wise candidates had easy and inexpensive constant access to their "fan base" -- if you will. Need a little more money? Out goes the appeal. That's pretty simple and Obama did it best.

But on day one after the election, became a transition network for the 10 million contacts that he met during the primary and general election. It's not just a future beg-a-thon in waiting, it's a transitional government complete with a way for true believers to apply for a job.

I have read accounts in the online press within the past week that Republicans are worried about Obama's ability to not just raise money but have instant access to so many of his supporters. This is a first and it's hard to know for sure whether this base -- as it grows -- has a major effect on the president's ability to govern.

Could there be 20 million people in Obama's social network within four years? In ten years, will a president be able to email, text or communicate online with one-fourth of the entire voting population? Only time can tell.

It's early and too soon to draw conclusions, but we can look at possibilities with keen interest going forward:

1. If record labels had been as aggressive as Obama in building a fan base over the years -- beyond the usual and gratuitous band and artist sites -- can you imagine what they could have done with just the click of a mouse? If the labels had 10 million fans in their social network -- and when I say fans I don't mean just names and numbers, but passionate followers -- they could make a hit, sell it for the right price and followup with other goodies at virtually no expense to them.

2. If radio stations (on a local level) could amass several hundred thousand fans in a viable social network (or whatever the market would allow), they could break music, sell their advertiser's promotions and extend their brand almost at will -- as long as in doing so they could keep their fan base happy.

And that's a big deal.

Radio and records would ruin the concept by asking, bombarding, offering junk -- and it would lose the passion that Obama still obviously has from his fan base. They'd turn a good social network concept into direct mail marketing gone wild because they don't understand the sociology involved.

Notice Obama is giving back -- part of the covenant that must be there to participate in a meaningful social network. He's saying, now you've helped me (and I'm probably going to ask for your help and money again) but here's a way to get a job with my new government if you'd like to apply online.

There's a lot to learn about social networks.

They are more than Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn.

There is a critical ecological balance between asking and giving something of value in return.

And there is the presumption -- I believe -- that those who stay in the network expect direct communication and that which they would not get readily elsewhere.

So, while the radio CEOs sit down and figure out how to carve up their turkeys by Thanksgiving to save a few more bucks, is there not one forward thinker out there who wants to go to school on the unharnessed power of social networks?

Not mailing lists. Not phone banks. Not robo callers.

Real networks of fans who get something advantageous by staying connected.

This reminds me of a massive promotion I did as a PD at a major market radio station during a recession. It was a while back and doesn't qualify as a social network as we know them today, but radio before consolidation was a loosely fit social network with listeners looking to djs for music and concert tickets and stations looking to listeners for support.

Very primitive by today's Internet standards.

My point is -- let's study the power of social networking as the game changer that it is. Let's not be left out on one of the more significant gifts that the Millennial generation is giving us.

Radio and records work at a great disadvantage.

They both alienated Gen Y.

Radio by ignoring them while they got their greedy hands on building radio clusters.

Record labels got off on the wrong foot when they failed to buy Napster and take downloading seriously while they could still be a part of it.

In both cases, you see the damage that these two industries did to themselves.

Tomorrow, perhaps I'll share with you the radio promotion that costs next to nothing to do and offers the one thing listeners want most -- next to, say -- free money.

I'll update it with modern social networking possibilities and I'll turn my friends in these two businesses loose on what they the very least could be a thought starter worthy of consideration and at best -- something you can roll out on-the-air and across all platforms in a week or so.

I always used to tell my students that I'd happily give up all the money I've made and any good reputation I may have earned in my career just to be their age at this time in the history of music and media. Of course, they thought I was nuts -- at first -- especially when I said I'd throw all that Clear Channel money in just to -- in essence -- be them!


The music media businesses offer so many opportunities for entrepreneurship that were never offered even ten years ago. While colleges still teach TV, radio and print -- students are out starting their own Internet-related businesses -- a most entrepreneurial generation.

And the next generation is sitting on the convergence of sociology -- not just technology as most of us previously thought -- and the potential for all of us is great.

I hope you will share my enthusiasm for the new media age in which we live.

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