ALEX Salmond did something telling at the end of the Yes Scotland launch on Friday.

As the applause rang out for the closing group photograph in Edinburgh's Cineworld, the First Minister instinctively nipped back to the mic for one last rallying cry to the troops.

He does the same thing at every SNP conference, as he rounds off the ovation to his big speech.

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But while the First Minister's action was understandable – he was surrounded by a sea of familiar party staff, supporters and donors – this was no SNP conference, and it showed.

The SNP, as its opponents readily acknowledge, runs one of the most sophisticated and successful political machines in Europe. Its self-discipline, co-ordination and ability to pinpoint persuadable voters is legendary.

Although Yes Scotland is nominally a cross-party campaign, behind the scenes, all the staff and money came from the SNP, so expectations for Friday were always high.

The main co-ordinators were two of the First Minister's former political advisers, while the cash was courtesy of a legacy from the late poet Edwin Morgan and a £1 million donation from the Ayrshire lottery winners, Chris and Colin Weir.

But instead of the kind of polished event for which the party is famous, Yes Scotland had an oddly disjointed start.

Sir Sean Connery sent a minuscule message from Spain, there was a video message from Elaine C Smith from Cardiff, Green MSP Patrick Harvie poked holes in the SNP's love of North Sea oil and talked down economic growth, and assorted poets, singers and emigré actors tramped on and off stage.

It was not until Brian Cox delivered a fiery if meandering diatribe on Thatcher, Blair and democratic socialism that the event threatened to catch fire, but then it was over. It was also noticeable that while some from the business community appeared in a film, none appeared in person to support a Yes vote.

The after-match media briefing was a mauling. Blair Jenkins, former head of news at BBC Scotland, was inexplicably put in front of the press pack, and struggled to answer basic questions on the campaign.

Asked if voters were being urged to sign the campaign's Yes Declaration without the facts, he replied: "Well, yeah. It's about hearts and minds in a broad sense, rather than the detail."

The next day's commentaries were savage, with even Salmond's biographer declaring "amateur hour".

Some of the criticism is justified. The campaign has felt rushed and scrappy, with key participants only learning the date when the Sunday Herald revealed it three weeks ago.

But this is also a new kind of campaign for Scotland and the media to get to grips with.

Yes Scotland can't be too slick or top-heavy with politicians as voters will feel excluded, so the emphasis is on community engagement instead. After all, the task is to overcome decades of doubt about independence, and that requires the most powerful persuasion there is: word of mouth.

The campaign is borrowing heavily from American presidential campaigning, with local offices and activists building "relationships neighbourhood by neighbourhood and community by community".

The goal is an organic network of self-starting "ambassadors", who will run anything from pub quizzes and coffee mornings to town hall debates in their part of the country, or who will act as cheerleaders among their peer groups, whether it is a particular business sector, such as energy or banking, or a particular demographic group, like working mums, students or pensioners. There are also groups for independence supporters in Labour, the Tories and LibDems.

SOFTWARE that helped get Barack Obama elected will also be used to keep people informed and direct them to just the right doors to knock. SNP campaign director Angus Robertson said: "Yes Scotland is reaching out to voters in new innovative ways as part of the biggest community-based campaign in Scotland's history."

But there remain problems for Yes Scotland too. What is it actually asking people to support? On the most basic level, it wants one million voters to support its Yes Declaration, which says that Scotland is best run by Scots, and which helpfully doubles as a gigantic mailing list. But beyond that the detail peters out.

The Yes campaign isn't offering a prospectus for independence because it can't agree on one.

For Greens and Scottish Socialists, independence should mean higher taxes to pay for public services, renewable energy instead of a reliance on fossil fuel, and a republic not a monarchy, while for Salmond and supporters, income from North Sea oil should cut taxes to the tune of God Save the Queen.

There are also divisions over whether to keep the pound or have a new currency.

A lot of this flows from Salmond's rolling redefinition of Scottish independence to appeal to the maximum number of voters, royalists included. SNP MP Angus MacNeil last week downplayed talk of splits, saying securing full powers for Holyrood is the main thing; the policies will follow.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University's politics department said yesterday that if just one in six voters moved from the No to the Yes camp it could deliver independence.

The key, he said, would be if Scots felt "an independent Scotland would be a prosperous Scotland", even to the tune of £500 a head more per year.

But that means having some convincing policies, and the Yes campaign – so far – has no policies at all, just a general principle. In the meantime, the lack of specifics leaves a vacuum which the No campaign intends to exploit, claiming it shows disarray and a lack of evidence to justify a reckless economic experiment.

It is no accident that Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor at the time of the 2008 crash, is at the front of the No campaign. He is a constant reminder of the folly of RBS, and that it took the Union to save it.

It is, of course, far too early to predict a winner of this campaign. Both campaigns are still embryonic, and two-and-a-half years is an eternity in politics. Even with a shaky start, this will be the race of our lifetimes.