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Campaigning Online — Advice from the Professionals

By Colin Delany

Note: I originally wrote this in March, 2000, and the online advocacy industry has a lot more experience now than it did then. But the rules of thumb outlined here are still valid, and the article provides a good overview of the practical issues involved in doing politics online.

See also The Real Revolution? Issue-Advocacy Campaigning on the Internet, our premier article on online campaigning.

Plenty of people have been discussing the Internet's potential to transform politics; very few have gotten into the nuts and bolts of campaigning online.

The March 9, 2000 discussion of online campaign management at the Washington, DC CampaignNet Conference was a welcome change: four professional campaign managers discussed in detail how issue and candidate campaigns can use the web and email to advance their agendas.

Pam Fielding, of the consulting firm e-advocates and co-author of "The Net Effect: How Cyber-Advocacy is Changing the Political Landscape", led off the discussion with an overview of the essentials of virtual campaigns. Her main points:

  1. A campaign website must be "more than a pretty face" — most visitors want substance, not just flashy graphics. According to surveys, most visitors to candidates' sites want detailed information about the candidate's position on issues.

    An effective site also has features that can turn site visitors into advocates or marketers for the candidate or issue, such as email mailing list sign-up forms, contribution forms, "email-a-friend" buttons, and (for advocacy campaigns) email-your-elected-official forms.

    Since many of a campaign site's visitors are journalists looking for background information, a dedicated press area with press releases, basic facts about the candidate or issue and contact names and phone numbers for follow-up is essential.

  2. A website alone is not an Internet strategy — it's just part of campaigning online. Fielding said (and other panel members confirmed) that many campaigns believe that they've met their online needs when they've built a website, when they've really just taken the first step.

    A more complete online strategy fully integrates the campaign's online and offline marketing efforts. As an example, she mentioned that one of this year's presidential campaigns had painted the URL of its website on the roof of the campaign bus, knowing that helicopter camera shots of the travelling bus would be a staple of tv news coverage. All campaign literature and advertising, including fliers, business cards, and radio and tv spots, should be sure to mention the address as well.

    Though a website is important, the most active tool of most online campaigns is email. Campaign staff should collect supporters' email addresses any time it is possible — through the website and at campaign rallys or fundraisers, for example. The resulting list, particularly if it is geographically separated, can be used to drum up volunteers for events, to generate a blizzard of email to an officeholder or to raise crowds at campaign stops.

    Finally, Fielding said that campaigns shouldn't overlook the possibility of using online banner advertising as well as the free exposure of participating in online discussion groups or chat rooms.

  3. Though a website itself does not have to cost much money, a poorly maintained one can be very expensive. Campaign sites are under constant scrutiny by friends and enemies, and leaving outdated information in plain site or doing a sloppy job on features not only can turn off potential supporters but gives fodder to the oppposition. Skimping on maintenance to save a few dollars can cost more than a campaign can imagine in the long run.

The panel's other members, Katherine Coombs of Washington Web Works, Bob Fertik of Democrats.com, and Erik Johnson of Campaign Office, amplified and expanded on Fielding's basic points.

Coombs emphasized the fact that though candidates' use of the web attracts more attention than issue campaigns, the same things work and don't work both. She stressed the overwhelming importance of email as an organizing tool, and re-emphasized the need to have an easy-to-find area on the campaign website for the press.

Fertik said that while he loves the way the web opens new channels to contact voters and stay in touch with supporters, campaigns MUST avoid any temptation to send unsolicited messages to people who have not signed up with the campaign. "Spam" will be counterproductive, he insisted, because it is more likely to alienate than motivate potential allies and because it can easily be captured and used against the sender by opponents.

Johnson laid out what he sees as three basic requirements of campaign sites in the immediate future:

  1. they must be fast and easy-to-use, so that the most possible supporters can take advantage of them

  2. they must be powerful and sophisticated, with plenty of content clearly presented and (when possible) advanced features such as video/audio archives for those visitors who can take advantage of them

  3. they must be affordable enough for smaller campaigns to take advantage of them

The overall lesson? The internet and the web give issue and candidate campaigns powerful tools to turn potential supporters into active advocates — but only if they're used right.

More Resources

Besides our article on issue campaigning online, The Real Revolution? Issue-Advocacy Campaigning on the Internet, try these categories from our links section: