The Real Revolution? Issue-Advocacy Campaigning on the Internet

By Colin Delany

Note: I wrote this article in September, 1999, so the intro is a little dated (it hinges on Jesse Ventura's use of the internet in his gubernatorial campaign). But the article as a whole holds up quite well as a guide for online activism, and its central thesis has been vindicated by experience. So don't bail out just because the opening's old.

See also Campaigning Online — Advice from the Professionals, another article about online campaigns, whether for candidates or for issues.

It took a pro wrestler to make it happen, but the news media have begun to notice the potential of the Internet to transform political campaigns.

Ever since Jesse Ventura won the Minnesota governor's office in part through a $600 website used to collect, organize and inform volunteers, reporters have been probing the extent to which the 'net can be used for political purposes. But in some ways they may be missing the point.

Major news outlets such as The Washington Post have devoted articles to this year's presidential candidates' uses of the 'net. Democrat Bill Bradley has attracted particular notice for his winning of Federal Elections Commission approval to receive federal matching funds for donations taken over the web.

But most articles about politics and the Internet have missed a part of the story that will linger beyond the periodic frenzy of campaign seasons: organizations and corporations across the country are learning to use the Internet for campaigns about issues rather than about candidates. This could well be the real Internet political revolution: a non-stop online campaign, launched from thousands of sources targeting hundreds of issues across the country and around the world.

Why the Internet?

Why are issue-advocacy campaigns moving online? The web offers major advantages over traditional media, including cost, speed, lack of filtering, targeting, and interconnection.

Regardless of the high price tags of many corporate websites, using the web for politics can be relatively cheap. Beginners can employ any of the various site-building tools (many of which are free) to put together a credible website in a few hours; a professional-looking site often costs only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars (or nothing if skilled volunteers are available). Hosting the site usually costs less than $30 per month.

By contrast, a professional-looking brochure for a direct mailing can cost thousands for the design alone, plus tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for printing and postage. Television ads start in the tens-of-thousands range before a single second of airtime is purchased.

Even better, email distribution is effectively free. Once volunteers' or supporters' addresses are gathered, they can be incorporated into a mailing list for regular issue updates and for overnight calls-to-action. And don't forget that recipients often forward email newsletters to other potential supporters who otherwise may never have heard about the campaign. (Internet marketing gurus call this "viral marketing," since a forwarded email spreads as if it had a life of its own, much as a virus spreads through a population.)

Just as the proliferation of online news sites has helped make news a 24-hour business (some print news outlets now break stories on their websites hours before they go to press), the web allows issue-advocacy campaigns to react to changes in the political environment almost instantly. As soon as an article or position paper can be written, staff can post it on the campaign's site and distribute it via email to supporters around the world.

Lack Of Filtering
Political candidates are particularly fond of the fact that the Internet allows them to get their message to voters without having it filtered through traditional news media. As Sen. Bob Bennett pointed out at the Frontier of Internet Politics conference (webcast available online; see Resources below), a candidate or officeholder traditionally gave a speech hoping that a newspaper or TV newscast would run with a short quote or soundbite.

But now, a website/email network allows a candidate to distribute the full contents of the speech (as either a transcript or an actual broadcast) far beyond the confines of its initial audience, and without it being stripped down to a single phrase. This tendency of the web to remove intermediaries applies to an issue-advocacy campaign's Internet communications as well. An issue campaign's press releases, issue papers, speeches and other communications can go directly to potential supporters as easily as a candidate's can.

The web tends to break down into communities of interest rather than into geographic communities. Websites and online discussion groups exist to serve almost any group you can think of (and plenty that most of us NEVER would have considered). This division by interest rather than by geography looks to open up more opportunities for issue campaigns than for candidates' campaigns.

Here's why. Political offices in this country are tied to distinct geographic regions -- a city, a county, a congressional district, a state. But the audience of most websites crosses geographic boundaries.

Candidates for geographically restricted offices (councilmember, congressmember) in urban areas already pay for more ads on local TV than they need. They waste many ad-views on people outside their districts just to catch the few who can actually vote for them. Candidates will probably find that advertising on websites will have the same handicap, but worse and for more candidates, since too few sites will target the right geographic groups. (Of course, there will always be exceptions -- imagine a Texas A&M alum running for Texas governor advertising on an Aggie alumni site.)

The outlook is different for issue-advocacy campaigns, however: the web's breakdown-by-interest fits an issue campaign's need to reach voters and activists who care about a particular subject regardless of where they happen to live.

Issue campaigns could use advertisements and sponsorships on carefully selected websites and email newsletters to reach and motivate potential supporters, activists and donors (imagine the National Rifle Association advertising against a piece of gun-control legislation on a gun-enthusiast site). They could tailor their messages to match particular niches as well. In an ad on a libertarian-oriented site, for instance, the NRA might portray a gun-control bill as impinging on personal freedom. The same organization's ad on a gun-enthusiast site might speak more directly of the legislation as a threat to gun ownership.

This advantage isn't entirely new, since niche publications exist in the print world as well. But the web multiplies the number and specialization of the niches by orders of magnitude.

The last big advantage the web has in the political realm is integration: it's relatively easy to tie all of the above pieces together into a whole because web applications tend to be designed to work in concert. Being able to click on a web link in the body of an email message (in most email readers) and go directly to that website is one example.

Several companies also offer organizations more advanced features, such as database packages that allow site readers to send email directly to their own congressmember (presumably with a message shaped by the organization). Those hypothetical NRA ads above could be very effective if they linked to an email-your-congressmember page.

Tying it all together

How would it work in practice? An organization starts with a website explaining (and selling) its position on an issue and gathering volunteers' email addresses (and perhaps contributions). A more advanced site has email-your-officeholder features to convert a call-to-action into real action immediately.

The campaign uses those addresses to send out news, issue-updates and event notifications, with each email containing links back to the main site (for more information) as well as encouragements to forward the message on to others who might be interested. The organization also hunts down websites that target the correct niche, asks those sites to link to the appropriate pages on the issue-advocacy site, and perhaps purchases advertising or a sponsorship.

The issue campaign's offline advocacy work ties in to the online campaign. Direct mail pieces, print advertising, public appearances and TV/radio advertising mention the website as a way for interested people to learn more about the campaign (in fact, no publication leaves the campaign's office without some mention of the website, even if it's just a reference to the site's URL). The pieces of a well-done online issue-advocacy campaign mesh together and reinforce one another.

Who's doing this in practice? You can see part of such a campaign on the Political Information (.com) website right now. Lockheed Martin has purchased ad space on a number of nonpartisan, politically oriented websites, with many of the ads promoting funding for the F-22 fighter plane. Each presents some information about the company's position and links back to a web page that makes the full case. The banner ads run in parallel with print ads in the Washington Post and in political newsletters.

Direct political advertising is still fairly rare on the 'net, but thousands of organizations now have websites to promote their positions (see the Political Information Issues section for a sampling -- in Resources below). Hundreds (at least) have online mailing lists of some kind to target their supporters.

These efforts are just the beginning: online issue-advocacy campaigns won't go into hibernation after the polls close next November. Instead, they will be a non-stop part of the political system for the foreseeable future. Although most attention has focused on the presidential campaigns and the Internet, issue advocacy could be the real online political revolution.


Want to know more about the issues in this article?

  1. To see the Frontier of Internet Politics webcast (and hear Sen. Bennett's comments), go to:

  2. To read tips, techniques and strategies for tying an issue campaign together, try our Grassroots/Activist Resources section

  3. For campaign-management tools such as the ones described above, try our Grassroots/Management Tools section

  4. For a general look at interest groups by political issue, try our Issues section