Over the past two weeks in a blitzkrieg of online research, Rick Stratton, President 1871 Media, visited almost 500 political campaign Web sites. He was hoping to find inspirational best practices. Instead on site, after site, after site, he found textbook examples of what not to do.
Stratton says, "It's amazing in this day and age how some notable candidates and elected officials can have terrible web presences. At its core the web is an amazingly efficient communications tool. But, many candidates and elected officials don't give it enough respect."
The thing is, unlike TV and radio campaigns, Stratton discovered candidates do not need deep coffers to have a powerful and persuasive Internet presence. Fairly inexpensive sites will work just fine as long as they avoid the seven most common mistakes:
1. Inadequate or Amateurish Contact information
Stratton was most surprised by the number of sites that did not include the most basic contact information, such as a full address, phone number and a basic email address for the campaign's office on every page. Some sites forgot the information altogether, others relegated it to a "contact us" page, forcing visitors to click over to get it.
Also, if you are running a professional campaign, your email address should reflect it. Stratton says, "It is unbelievable how many high ranking elected officials and candidates use Yahoo or AOL for their work email!" Candidates and their staff look amateurish when their email does not use the campaign Web site's domain.
2. Forgetting to Include Basic Background Data
Candidates are so close to their race, that they often forget everyone visiting their site is not equally familiar with them. Stratton found a significant portion of campaign sites lacked one or more of the following essentials:
- A picture of the candidate
- A platform statement, or notes on critical issues
- Basic election and/or district information
3. Easy-to-Figure-Out Domain Names
Both human beings and search engine spiders look for campaign Web sites first and foremost by trying the candidate's name.
URL usability does not stop there. You also need to purchase domain names of common typos for the candidate's name, as well as domains (such as "name"sucks.com) that adversaries may purchase to post negative information. Any competent webmaster can easily make these alternative domains shadow your main site, so anyone typing them reaches the right place automatically.
4. Overly-Fancy Web Site Design
Stratton notes, "A big, fancy website is a waste of money. Yes, for big campaigns the branding image is important - but your Web site is a communications tool - not a TV ad. Spending $30,000 on a political website in this day and age is ridiculous."
When planning a site, first consider why constituents and press will visit it. Generally they are seeking information. They want to know how to contact you, what you stand for, how to donate to the cause, etc. People treat the Web as a cross between the Yellow Pages and an encyclopedia - not a TV set.
So, make sure your site pages load in less than 10 seconds, even on a fairly slow dial-up connection (this means almost no images beyond your candidate's picture). Plus, avoid Flash intros or opening splash pages people must sit through or click through to get to where they are going.
Stratton recommends that instead of investing in fancy Web graphic design, candidates ask their developer to include a very easy-to-use content management system that in-house staffers can use to change or add information to the Web site at a moment's notice.
You do not want to pay a Web consultant $100 an hour and sit around waiting whenever you have a new press release, platform statement or other news to add to the site immediately. A content management system puts the power in your hands.
5. No Guidance for Offline Contributions
Many campaign sites now enable supporters to contribute to the campaign online via their credit card. However, Stratton reminds candidates that it is also important to make it possible forpeople to donate via more traditional means such as check or a faxed in credit card number.
Studies show that a significant percent of American consumers are still uneasy about using online credit card systems. Others (especially women) prefer to write checks so they can track their donations conveniently. And some (especially seniors) prefer to speak to a human being on the phone when donating.
So, campaign sites should always include printable contribution forms with address, phone number, and a fax number.
6. Not Collecting Supporters' Email Addresses
Every campaign Web site should prominently feature a box to collect the opt-in email addresses of supporters and interested press. Then campaigns should use this collected list to send out a regular email newsletter.
This tactic has proven to be immensely powerful, yet few candidates do it. Stratton notes, "It shouldn't be expensive nor should it be time consuming." A simple text newsletter is easy to write, and costs almost nothing to distribute.
7. Being Written Only in English
Just 2% of the nearly 500 US campaign sites Stratton visited contained any information in a language other than English. This is a profound oversight in a time when a significant portion of the population speaks Spanish, and studies show US Hispanics are moving online at a record rate.
Stratton's site http://www.1871media.com
Site with lots of useful links to US campaign Web sites