CNN YouTube debates begin

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The first of the CNN YouTube virtual presidential debate series debuted at last week's Democrat debate, ushering in a new level of voter engagement. However, Nielsen ratings revealed a smaller audience for this special debate (2.6 million) than an earlier, traditional debate on June 3 (2.8 million).

In total, 2,989 questions were submitted previous to the debate by YouTube users and asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper, who moderated the event in Charleston, SC. The goal was to engage voters in the debate process to get them more involved in the campaign.

"These debates will allow people to have their voices heard on a national stage, which is a great opportunity to empower people and provide them with yet another avenue to speak directly to the presidential candidates," said Brandon Boone, a spokeswoman at YouTube, in an e-mail. "Campaigns recognize the power of YouTube to reach out to voters and this debate was a great way for them to leverage the power of the Internet and television to reach voters across the country."

Questions were submitted to www.youtube.com/debates, with select questions being directed at the candidates. YouTube users' questions - "How are you going to be any different?" and "Did race play an issue in the response to Katrina?" - were asked directly to the candidates during the debates, aired live on both CNN and YouTube. Those questions that were not asked were posted on the site for viewers to watch and comment on.

YouTube's post-debate discussion page revealed mixed reactions. While some users were posting commentary about the content of the debates, some were addressing the new forum.

"I'm conflicted on this new format," said YouTube user ZZDaikun, in a text video posted in the post-debate forum. "On the one hand, it's much more open to the public; but on the other, it feels too restricted. It felt the same as any other debate preceding it. The only difference is that it has mini movies."

Still, from a direct marketing perspective, even criticism in an online forum shows consumer engagement. After only two days online, 11,609 views had been registered for Sen. Hillary Clinton answer to the question, "How would electing Clinton represent change in Washington?"; 11,679 page views of Gov. Bill Richardson answering, "What are your views on gun control? Are my guns safe?"; and 2,294 page views of Sen. Chris Dodd answering the question, "Will you be different?"

With these kinds of metrics, political marketers can measure which issues are most popular, how important different issues are to different demographics and look at a user's YouTube profile, which often gives demographic data on the user. In addition, consumers being able to comment directly on the channel that it is being broadcast illustrates the power of online video as a direct marketing tool.

"YouTube has been a perfect tool for democracy in action, a great forum for the free exchange of ideas where everyone is provided equal opportunity to share information and be widely heard," Boone said. "Both voters and candidates have expressed a real interest in using our platform for political engagement. We created our You Choose '08 platform and Citizentube in response to the desire."

The Republican debate will be held in the same CNN YouTube format on September 17 in St. Petersburg, FL.

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