Last week I interviewed Heather Lauer who is in charge of online strategy for the Pickens Plan, a grass-roots effort to support legendary oil-man-turned-energy-independence champion T. Boone Pickens’ strategy for reducing the country’s dependence on foreign sources of energy.  I’ve been fascinated by this campaign since it launched last summer, particularly because of its inarguable success: the web site now has  1.4 M registered members, known as Boone’s Army, and it also gets high points for user experience and navigability.  Plus you have to admire that an octogenarian like Pickens (as opposed to say someone like Obama) has so thoroughly embraced and “gotten” social media.

As Heather told me, “He may not understand the media part but he gets the social.”

She continued, “When we first set out we knew that Boone was going to be a great messenger but he would need an army behind him.  We launched the web site in July and immediately added a social network … our sense that it was going to be the easiest way to build an army online and find more supporters.”  They considered options: should they go on facebook? Ning? In effect, they did both.  But at this early stage the community was not the core of the strategy, which was focused on web site traffic and registrations.

“Our expectation was the other networks (like facebook) would be stronger because they have a built-in audience, but it was just the opposite … Ning turned out to be much stronger” in terms of community-building and driving people to the Pickens Plan site.   The further surprise was that the community, originally conceived as a sub-objective, is now the most important platform for effecting the political change sought by Pickens and his staff. 

The campaign launched with TV ads, online banner ads on news sites and a limited number of strategically placed blogger ads.  The campaign ran through the summer but during a brief hiatus this winter, Heather and her team noticed something else remarkable: when the campaign started up again using only television, the effect on traffic was minimal.  But when the blogger ads were used in isolation, their performance was considerably stronger and, it goes without saying, less expensive.

How are they measuring success? "Both total sign ups and the number of people in our social network are important to us, but what's really more important is how many people are willing to take action.  People who are willing to organize in their local communities to support the Pickens Plan, who are willing to send emails and make calls to their Members of Congress, who are willing to recruit other people to the cause, etc.  That's how we measure the effectiveness of our army.  We could have an army of 10 million, but if no one wanted to take action, then it wouldn't matter.  Fortunately we are blessed with an army of 1.4 million who are willing to take action, and that's because they strongly believe in Boone and his plan for energy independence."

The Ning site now has 192,000 members, and is organized by paid staff which handles large geographies and volunteers for each Congressional district.  Since December, volunteers have been directed and tasked with signing up new members, writing a Congressman, creating an op-ed for a local newspaper,  holding an “off-line” meeting, etc., and their progress is “socialized” on a leader board on the site.

“It’s exciting to be working on something this important,” says Lauer, when I asked her if she found it interesting that a proclaimed Republican like Pickens was so successful with the kinds of practices that have been more recently embraced by the Democrats.  “He’s kind of post-partisan.”

And now having seen how effective "new" media is, presumably this is one crisis Pickens is not going to spend his (ad dollars) way out of.