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Kicking Off a Successful Online Political Campaign

by Phil Tajitsu Nash and Emilienne Ireland


Back in the 2000 campaign cycle, many campaigns did not even have a website.  Today, every campaign has a website, and some are even using blogs, RSS feeds, Facebook, and other tools to reach out to a wide audience and draw some of them back to the campaign's online home.


Putting aside the technical jargon, a good online campaign is a lot like a good offline campaign.  In fact, a good website and internet campaign is nothing more than a strategic plan you implement online.


Whether supporting a political campaign, providing outreach to an organization's members, or galvanizing support from the community and campus, a successful online campaign always starts with five steps:  Strategize, Develop, Test, Launch, and Update.


While a professional website developer can help you decide how to implement your strategy, you will save time and money if you strategize with your online and offline campaign staff as soon as your campaign begins.


Here are three strategic questions to consider:


Who is your audience?  

Early in a campaign, your audience is the press, potential donors and volunteers, your opponents, and your own party's big shots.  The question everyone will be asking is “Is this candidate viable?”  If you come out of the gate with your “Under Construction” signs blazing, you are shooting yourself in the foot.  No one takes a candidate seriously who is not ready for prime time.


If all of your content is not ready on day one, consider using an Announcement site.  Most of the 2008 presidential campaigns used these.  A simple statement of why you are running, a nice Bio page, and forms for volunteering, donating, and signing up for a campaign email newsletter are all you need.  Make sure, however, that your graphics and text are top quality, because even small typos or ambiguous pictures at this point can create doubts about your campaign leadership.


As the campaign progresses, your audience is the general public, as well as the aforementioned audiences.  Regular updates are needed on the Press pages, and information about what the candidate is doing help to show that the campaign is alive and well.


At the end of the campaign, the audience is the voters.  Comparisons between your candidate and others must be clear and stark.  Why should I vote for you?  Tell me, in three seconds, why you are the best for the job?


What are your goals?

The answer to this question flows from the answers to the first question.  Early in the campaign, you want to establish your credibility enough to raise money, get volunteers, and show the press and the party bigwigs that you are the real deal.  Later, you want your Issues and Record pages to show you have depth and a track record.  At the end, you have to persuade the voters who are checking in at the last minute before heading to the polls.


What will be your key messages?

This question can be answered partly from your own convictions, partly from the polling you have done for your district, and partly from your study of past campaigns in your district.  Go to a website like www.Politics1.com and study the websites of people in your area.  Note the wording and graphics used.  Put aside party labels and see whose online messaging was the most effective.


If you are an insurgent, you are well advised to choose one or two key messages you can use as a focal point for your online campaign.  Veterinarian and peace activist Jerry Northington decided to make ending the Iraq war the main focus of his campaign website (www.northington08.com), and this has allowed him to reach out for funds and volunteers far beyond his district in Delaware.


Once you decide on a message, be sure it is consistent with your offline messaging.  And make sure that even ad-libbed comments have been vetted for an audience broader than just those in your district. 


Former Virginia GOP Senator George Allen learned the hard way that what he thought was a private communication at a GOP rally was fair game for videotaped broadcast on YouTube.  Democrat Jim Webb's energized Asian American supporters became the margin of victory after they heard one of their own disparaged as a “macaca.”


From Strategy to Execution


Once your strategy is decided, it is time to make decisions about how to implement it online.  The Winning Campaigns website (www.winningcampaigns.org) lists firms that can help you, or you can look at the sites created for candidates in your area or the sites that have won Golden Dot (http://polc.ipdi.org/GoldenDots/shortlist.htm) and Pollie (www.theaapc.org) awards.


While some templatized website solutions have the tools you need to collect donations, sign up volunteers, and display your bio and record, remember that online campaigning, like any other type of campaigning, is about both fulfillment and persuasion.  Websites have not caught up to television or direct mail as a persuasion medium, but the best websites are very persuasive.


Persuading someone to support you with their money, time and vote starts with a website that meets basic standards of internet effectiveness.  Can a visitor find the information they seek?  Are they treated with respect for their intelligence (and not barraged with bloviated statements that are unsupported by fact)?  Do they see a well-organized, carefully crafted, and fully spell-checked Bio page, Issues page and Record page?


Moving beyond text, do the graphics and pictures tell a story that is consistent with the text?  Through image selection, cropping, and optimization, does the feeling of optimism, sincerity and likeability shine through?


There is no one way to create a website or run a successful online campaign.  Everything is situational.  Everything is strategic.  The same person running for a different office or in a different state will have to tailor his or her message to that office and state.


The current focus of internet campaigning is on how to mobilize blog readers, get page views for online videos, and use emails to drive traffic to the website.  While all of these are important, a return to the fundamentals of strategic messaging is still the place to start.


Phil and Emi, authors of "Winning Campaigns Online," do public
and private sector training and websites at
CampaignAdvantage.com. Contact:
Click here to contact this Author.

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