Presidential hopefuls tap into gather.com

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Much has been made of the role the Internet is playing in the 2008 presidential campaign. However, much of the activity to date has centered around the campaigns for the candidates reaching out online to people who have already shown an affiliation.

More voices were invited into the conversation last week when seven of the presidential candidates launched their own groups on the social media site Gather.com.

The site differs from other well-known social networks, such as MySpace or Facebook, in that it aims to connect users based on interests. Members create a profile and post their views regarding food, health, money, entertainment, travel and other lifestyle topics.

"[The candidates and their campaigns] are very eager to reach out and learn about how this space works," said Tom Gerace, founder and CEO of Gather.com, adding that he expects to have all of the major candidates on the site within the month.

The candidates that have already launched forums on Gather.com are Joe Biden, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Gather.com expects the candidates to post new content every few days between now and the primaries. Gather.com is also working with the candidates to develop special events.

With some of the material that has been posted so far being written by a third party, not all of the candidates seem to have grasped yet how social media works.

"The campaigns have real learning to do about participating in social spaces like Gather.com," Gerace said.

Gather.com, Boston, provides an opportunity for the candidates to engage in a dialogue with a politically active and influential community that is maybe undecided about who to support in next year's presidential election, according to Gerace.

"Gather.com gives the candidates a great place to test market their messages and see what resonates and what's repeated by the community," he said.

Of course, to do that, "they have to show up and engage them in a conversation," he continued.

The political section on Gather.com - which was created about 11 months ago - is the largest and most active area of focus on the site, with about 35,000 active members. Other popular sections such as food and travel have between 15,000 and 20,000 active members.

Seventy-two percent of registered members have a college education or higher; 86.3 percent has a $50,000-plus household income; 77 percent own a home and the median age is 42 years old.

Already, there have been examples of the candidates using the space to try to connect with members in a way they can't through a TV ad or direct mail campaign.

For example, Biden has shared videos of several unscripted, untelevised speeches.

"[Through these, members] get to know Joe Biden far better than through any news report," Gerace said.

Not only will be the candidates be able to get their message out to this politically aware audience, but the opportunity is also there for a viral effect.

On Gather.com, every time a member posts content on the site, the people in the member's group automatically receive an e-mail notifying them about the new content. In this way, members can "begin to market their candidate to a friend or family member," Gerace said.

In addition, Gather.com launched a campaign last week to announce the new forums. The effort includes more than 400,000 e-mails that were sent to Gather.com members. It will also encompass onsite advertising and merchandising for the forums.

Gather.com is also reaching out to politically oriented bloggers that aren't currently on the site with the news to try to get them to come onto the site. The site pulls featured articles to highlight on its home page and attracts audience and conversation by flagging various topics of interest.

Last week, the site announced a nationwide search for six bloggers to cover the 2008 presidential election. Potential pundits are invited to submit an article and/or video on an election topic. Finalists will be selected by the Gather.com community.

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