Campaigning Online

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By Jon Worth  

Why should you campaign online?      

As a starting point it is vital to think about the demographics of the electorate – where do you need to find support, and does that correlate with the highest levels of internet use?     

In short this means any green party, anywhere in Europe, has a very good case to be actively engaged in online campaigning. Across Europe older cohorts of the electorate (in percentage and actual terms) vote in greater numbers than younger cohorts. The graph of regular internet usage in Europe is precisely the opposite – with younger people using the internet much more than older generations.       

The very nature of green parties – edgy, forward looking, creating a new vision of the left and environmentalism distinct from the traditional parties of the left (most often linked to organised labour) – means the natural green electorate is going to be younger and more web savvy than supporters of the traditional Volksparteien.       

In terms of party organisation, and even at the level of ideology, greens should be at the forefront of the use of the web for campaigning. Green parties traditionally have flatter party structures, are more open to internal debate and discussion that longer-established parties, and these more ad-hoc and participative forms of organisation are common across the net. Furthermore, smaller green parties, especially in central and eastern Europe, may simply not have the long established structures of their older and often better funded opponents – effective use of the internet may act as a partial alternative in these cases.       

Any green would be in favour of one less poster and one less leaflet in election campaigns – purely in terms of sustainability. So while questions are legitimately being raised about the green credentials of data centres used to run websites, the environmental case for message delivery online, as opposed to via traditional routes, remains clear. The same applies financially – the costs of online activity can often be substantially lower than traditional means, although this is of course only so if online activity can be translated into success at the ballot box. The following sections of this article will explain how this can be done.       


In what elections does internet campaigning work?     

As a campaign consultant I am often asked “Well has anyone actually won an election thanks to their use of the internet?”, “When are we going to see the first internet election?” or “When are we going to see someone using the net in Europe in the way Obama did?” Sorry to disappoint, but all of these questions rather miss the key issue. We already have very net based election campaigns, yet determining the impact of the internet as separate from other factors is the complicated issue.      

Think of it this way: without e-mail between activists and staff, Google searches for the latest opinion poll data, and all the latest news drawn from news sites, modern election campaigns would simply not function. There is to be no return to the use of paper and telephone.       

The important question is about comparative advantage moving forward.       

I would argue that there are four types of elections where an internet campaign can have a decisive impact. These are:       

  • internal party selections or elections
  • elections with little media coverage
  • elections with predominant themes
  • elections with strong characters

I will deal with each of these in turn.       

First of all, party selections or elections. Here the case for a net campaign is incredibly strong. The electorate is small, motivated and often geographically dispersed, especially when a matter concerns the national level of a party. The traditional campaigning means – knocking on doors, tables on street corners, leaflets – do not work or are not cost effective. Often a party only allows a limited biography to be distributed with ballot papers, and speeches at party conventions are too late to change an outcome. So online activities are the vital means to build a reputation and build standing.       

Secondly, any election that is covered little by the mainstream media is ideal for online campaign efforts. This of course applies to internal party selections and elections; debate about these is seldom carried out in the newspapers, television and radio. The same, however, applies to second order elections – local elections and European elections when the media has its eyes elsewhere. If turnout is going to be low then those that will vote are the motivated ones, and possibly motivated enough to look you up online. Equally the election area – a local ward council for example – may not even have its own media (even local newspapers are not always that local), yet web campaigns can be very narrowly and locally targeted.       

Elections fought strongly on policy themes are also a fertile ground for online campaigning, where the net can be used to build bridges between candidates running on platforms that raise certain issues and NGOs and other campaigners raising the same points. The crucial question here is what brand to use – how much of this networking should be on the sites of the party, and how much elsewhere – but clear policy thinking works well online, and matches how an electorate thinks (and Googles).       

Strong candidates and interesting characters are a further important component of a vibrant online campaign. The electorate can see who is behind the information being produced, and can relate to the individuals involved at a much more intimate level than can be done via the mainstream media. The net can also be used to progressively develop a different reputation for an individual than the one portrayed by the regular press. Furthermore a candidate cannot be expected to meet every single voter in a constituency, especially in large urban areas, so effective net campaigning can help bridge this gap.       

To conclude this section, where does it work less well? Things work far less effectively when online activities are nothing more than a reflection of the offline, i.e. parties themselves are to the fore, to the neglect of individuals and policies important to the electorate. This means that effective online campaigning can also contribute to the organisational evolution of traditional parties.       


Where to start     

Like so much else in party political campaigning there is no substitute for good preparation in online campaigns. As the previous two sections of this article have stressed, online activity is about presentation of individuals and policies, and it is also about the overall impression gained by the electorate. These are not matters that can be left for the short campaign in the weeks before the election itself. This is especially valid when it comes to traffic driven from search engines (see section 6 below), and a sustainable social media strategy also takes time.      

First and foremost try so set some objectives for any online campaign activity. SMART objectives work as well for the web as they do offline and are always a good place to start:       

Specific – Objectives should specify what they want to achieve.
Measurable – You should be able to measure whether you are meeting the objectives or not.
Achievable – Are the objectives you set achievable and attainable?
Realistic – Can you realistically achieve the objectives with the resources you have?
Time – When do you want to achieve the set objectives?       

It is perfectly acceptable to set objectives for the web alone – numbers of site visitors, or numbers of others linking to your site, for example – but do try to set something clear and measurable. All too often websites are created for no reason other than everyone else has one, so why not? More rigour is always welcome.       

Second, a clear staffing plan is vital. Who is going to do what online, according to what time frame? It cannot be expected that the candidate themselves will produce all content, or indeed sign off all content. Content displayed on a campaign site needs to be timely, accurate and interesting, so there is no place for complex sign off procedures.       

Having said that, web campaigning, and especially social media, works best when the individual seeking election is in some way involved in online activities. This might be a blog or Twitter account that is written by the individual politician, while other parts of a website are written by staff members. There is no correct mix of these aspects, although as a matter of preference I would always verge on the side of more candidate involvement wherever possible. Web campaigning does not demand great prose; instead the priority is the quality and immediacy of content.       

Above all it is vital to be honest in all web communications – there is no legitimate expectation that a candidate writes all his or her own content, but if a candidate is writing some of it, then find ways to highlight this – making it clear in a sidebar for example that this really is the candidate. Conversely, if a candidate simply has no personal interest in anything to do with the internet then it is questionable how much time should be invested online. A web campaign that is too distinct from the candidate’s own style and political aims will soon look hollow.       


How to commission a website    

 The website for a candidate in an election campaign is going to be the hub around which all other online activity revolves. Hence decisions taken in this area are vital to ensure success of all other online activities.      

The main question here is: where do you compromise? Your campaign will have finite financial resources and not everything will be possible within the time and especially the finances available.       

When approaching a web agency to commission a site it is good to have a clear idea in mind about what sorts of functions the website is going to need from the start, what functions may need to be added in future, and also to draw up a list of links to sites from similar organisations or individuals that you consider to be good in some way.       

The brief for a new site should be something between 1 and 3 A4 pages in length. If it is shorter the agency will have to guess what you want, and correcting problems later will be time consuming for all concerned. Conversely, a brief that is too long and detailed may bind an agency so tightly that costs of a project rise as programmers and designers strive to meet every last criterion.       

At the heart of every modern website is a content management system – this is essentially a web-based software system that allows users to update content from a web browser, using a username and password to login. Any campaign is fast moving and you need your content online now, not when someone from your agency has time to fit it in.       

In terms of technology, the main costs that can be cut depend on the choice of content management system. I am yet to see a system programmed by an individual agency that comes close to the capabilities of the main open source (i.e. free) content management systems such as WordPress, Drupal or Typo3. So insist on open source, and, if told an open source option will not work, then ask why not, and consider going elsewhere. The vast majority of campaign sites are not breaking the mould of net politics – this is primarily about doing the basics well.       

A detailed guide on how to choose a Content Management System can be found at WebDesignerDepot here, but in simplest terms it depends on the style of site you wish to create. Are you looking for something blog or magazine style? If so, then WordPress would be a good starting point. Are you looking for a detailed, structured site with dozens of pages that will develop over the years? If so then Typo3 could well be the place to look. If you’re looking for a combination of those things then Drupal might be a good option, although it is not always the easiest system to use.       

When it comes to design it is important to see the big picture, and make sure all design ideas are collated by one staff member before sending them to a designer. Further, avoid getting stuck in a cycle that concerns the exact shade of green or blue, or whether a certain object requires a shadow or not. Some design tasks are simply not worth the financial outlay to make them work – especially when you consider that websites look very different considering the browser used to view them. Above all make sure you do not end up in design hell, and try to build an effective and constructive working relationship with the people doing the design work.       

So, in short, you should be able to compromise when it comes to the technical choices that you make. But it is content where fewer corners can be cut.       

I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: your online campaign will be made or broken according to the quality of the content produced, and not due to tech or design.       

So, if you have limited resources, think content, content, content. Focus relentlessly on that. The smartest tech or smoothest design without the necessary content serves no purpose whatsoever.       


Additional tools      

Above and beyond the text and images your website will be able to deliver, what are the other tools you are going to need? Here are a few suggestions.       

1. A newsletter system
You need a solid and reliable way to mail supporters, activists and the press, so a reliable newsletter tool is important. If you are mailing more than 50 people in one go then a newsletter tool will do a better job than Outlook. You have essentially two options – an open source system such as phplist that allows you to mail as many people whenever you like for no additional cost per mailing, and features a web-based signup and unsubscribe function. Alternatively, paid services such as MailChimp and Campaign Monitor offer detailed statistics on how many people open a newsletter, but charge for each mailing sent out.       

Regardless of the technology you choose, make sure you keep your mailings short and snappy, linking wherever possible to your website, and also asking for something from the readers – practical action to take.       

Do not be over-reliant on your newsletters, however – as we are all so swamped by e-mail you will be lucky to get more than 1 in 5 recipients actually opening your messages.       

2. A website news system
Not a separate technology as such, more of an aspect of your website. You are going to be producing all kinds of news stories throughout a campaign – who did what, where and when, who was quoted in which newspaper, etc. – and you need a simple way to catalogue all of these stories. ‘Posts’ in WordPress and the News plugin in Typo3 can accomplish this function for you.       

3. A blog
Essentially a blog is a website with content written in an informal manner, in chronological order, and with the opportunity to comment on articles. The latter is important – blogging is about building a conversation, and the lack of a comments function prevents that happening. Avoid falling into the trap of just calling site news a ‘blog’ to try to sound cool – it does not work. Take a look at Carl Bildt, Iain Dale and Tom Harris for examples of good political blogs, and see how these individuals highlight important political issues in an informal yet serious manner.       

Importantly, do not be to worried by the prospect of negative comments on a blog. If the US Air Force can manage to have a blog commenting policy – and they work in a very sensitive sector – then I’m sure you can do the same.       

4. RSS feeds
There are many different ways to read articles on the web, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a vital aspect of any modern website. This allows users to subscribe to content in a RSS reader, meaning they do not have to visit your actual website for news about what you are doing. Keeping an eye on RSS feeds from your opponents’ sites is an important way to monitor online reputation (see section 6 below).       

5. Social Media (Facebook and equivalents such as StudiVZ, Hyves, Orkut etc.)
In each of these networks individuals set up profiles and the assumption is that the actual individual is behind a profile, not a politician’s staff. The alternative is to establish supporter groups or pages for politicians in these networks if the candidate does not wish to be personally engaged in everyday use of the network. As stated above the key is to be honest and clear at all times.       

Facebook, with more than 500 million users worldwide, and half of regular online users with profiles on the network in some countries, is the clear market leader, although a case can be made for using other networks if they have a particularly strong local user base.       

Be aware that Facebook creates a grey area between the personal and the professional, and building an organisational rather than a personalised presence on Facebook can be complicated. Facebook is also now a saturated medium, meaning it can be hard to get messages through to supporters there.       

6. Twitter
If Facebook is for the people you know, Twitter is for the people you would like to know – even if you have no way of actually meeting those individuals in real life. The key here is in the vocabulary – on Twitter you have followers, on Facebook you have friends, with ‘follower’ implying a lower level of commitment.       

Twitter is an excellent medium to reach journalists and those interested in the topics that motivate you – it should be viewed as a professional networking tool.       

Twitter works very well off smart phones, and the super-short nature of the communications (140 characters in each tweet) means that finding time to use Twitter should be within the scope of every candidate.       

7. Flickr
A photo sharing website that takes imagery of what you are doing to a wider audience, although using it for your own ends – the Creative Commons option in the Advanced Search for royalty-free images – might be more useful on an everyday basis.       

8. Youtube and Vimeo
Youtube pioneered video sharing online, while Vimeo is its challenger with more flexible tools for not-for-profit organisations. These services make the tech aspects simple – upload a video in more or less any format and the sites handle the rest, and embed codes allow you to integrate videos from these services into your own site. The problem comes when you have to ask yourself what to film and how, and whether your video is going to be adequately interesting to garner hundreds or even thousands of views. Effective use of online video can be expensive and time consuming – ask yourself whether use of video is the best use of your time.       

9. Something cool?
What is going to set your campaign apart from the rest? If this is your aim then it is worth giving some thought to using some new, innovative services and being the very first person to be active using a particular technology. The current web boom areas are location based services, and smart phone applications. Have a look at Foursquare and Layar, and think whether there could be mobile phone applications that could be developed for your campaign. As with anything else keep a close eye on the finances, but doing web tech well is still interesting enough to generate coverage and interest in its own right.       


Keeping an eye on your online reputation     

This article has so far covered all the proactive things that can be done in online campaigning, the things that are in your hands as a candidate or a campaigner. But what about the things others are going to write about you online?      

Start by Googling yourself, and keywords that are important to your campaign. At the very least you need to make sure the top Google search results when searching for your name are you, and ideally your website should be the top result. To assist with this put your whole name in the domain name of your site. For example franzsimmering.com is much better than franzfuerhamburg.com or votefranz.co.uk when it comes to Google search results. Give your Google search results time to develop – you might need 6 months of your site being live before it reaches the top of Google search results.       

Secondly, keep an eye on what Google finds about you by using Google Alerts. You can receive an e-mail as-and-when, or daily, when Google finds any new stories mentioning you or keywords you define, or if anyone links to your site. You can then determine whether to respond to what has been written or not. Backtweets.com offers the same service as Google alerts, only for Twitter – track people who link to your site from Twitter.       

Lastly, learn how to use RSS. This is especially vital if you want to exploit networks of bloggers as part of your campaign, but it is also generally useful anyway. Open an account with Netvibes or Google Reader, and add feeds from national, regional and local press, and from blogs that are relevant to the policy issues you work on. You will never have time to visit 30 blogs a day, but keeping an eye on 30 blogs via RSS is possible. For more advice on the effective use of RSS see this article.

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