Mitt Romney's VP App, launched with much fanfare for the single purpose of breaking the news of Paul Ryan's selection, was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism by many observers, myself included: It seemed like a gimmick, a lot of downloading for something that could have been as easily accomplished at an email. At best, it seemed like a very labor-intensive way to get some email addresses.
That criticism missed the point, which became clear this morning when an update arrived in the Apple store that totally overhauls the app, removes the "VP" theme and title, and fills it in with a to tool aimed at mobilizing supporters and, centrally, at encouraging them to share campaign content with their friends on social networks. Far from a gimmick, the app's Vice Presidential focus was an unusually effective way to convince supporters — the only people who are going to download something like this anyway — to bother with the tool in the first place; and they have now downloaded not a one-trick pony, but a shell that the campaign today filled with an entirely new piece of software, one aimed at converting its supporters into active campaigners for Romney on social media.
"The act of downloading it is a high threshold — it’s much higher than [following a campaign on] Twitter or Facebook," Romney digital director Zac Moffat told me a few days ago, in an interview embargoed for the app's update this morning. "We wanted to enter aggressively into the mobile world, we had to cut through the clutter."
The promise of breaking Vice Presidential news had been effective bait; the Obama campaign had used the same promise to harvest cell phone numbers for an announcement text message in 2008. There are no public figures on the number of downloads, but Romney's app was fourth in the Apple Store's ranking of free apps for a time day it launched; Obama's was far down the list.
"It did everything we wanted," said Moffat, who added that the downloads — more than 200,000 in the first 24 hours, according to the campaign — immediately drove a spike in Facebook followers and more than 100,000 new accounts on Romney's website.
When the news of the Ryan selection arrived at 7:04 a.m. on August 11, it served as definitive confirmation that Paul Ryan would be the running mate, and as first word of the pick for users who hadn't followed a late-night media storm over the plan. Wolf Blitzer held his cellphone up on CNN with the push notification, marking "the official announcement."
That notification was another reason to launch the app as a news-breaking device.
"What was great is that it would entice people to turn on push notifactions, which in and of itself is has a huge value," Moffat said.
The update that arrived this morning isn't just a tweak; it's effectively an entire new app. All reference to the VP announcement is gone, replaced with a series of standard campaign feature — events, issues, and a contribution page — but centered on videos and blogs and twitter postings from the campaign, and aimed at getting supporters to share them more widely.
The new app, said Moffat, "a one stop place where you can share information."
Moffat said he's trying to learn from other political apps' mistakes with the VP app and its non-VP update.
"The problem with political apps is that everyone tries to cut corners — they’re just glorified RSS readers in many cases, they don’t do much," he said. "They’re misconstrued as a persuasion tool: my basic premise is that they're more of a mobilization tool, which limits downloads as a result."
The goal of the new app is fairly simple: To convert the hundreds of thousands of users, who are almost by definition zealous supporters, into messengers themselves.
"You’re leveraging the social web," said Moffat. "They’ve become our home base."
"The persuasion comes from first-party validation," he said. "These hundreds of thousands of people share and validate your message."
It's too early to tell whether that plan is working — keep an eye on app users' Facebook and Twitter feeds, focus of a prominent "share" button inside the app. But what seemed like a gimmick now has a far clearer goal.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.