Online Politics is Also Local
Benjamin A. Katz
The other 99% percent
Presidential candidates, most notably the Dean campaign in 2004 and McCain campaign in 2000, tend to dominate discussions of online campaigning. While Presidential campaigns are often using some of the most exciting technology, these discussions miss the vast majority of online campaigns – those on the Congressional, state and local levels.
Exempting Gubernatorial, Presidential and a few other highly publicized races, most campaigns do not benefit from the free media that drives donors, volunteers and voters to their websites.
For this reason, many of tools and challenges faced by Presidential campaigns don’t apply to the typical campaign. There are, however, many things they can and are doing on-line.
E-mail is still the killer app
E-mail continues to be the most used and most effective tool on the Internet. Our clients, who range from local campaigns to national races, have found it is a great way to communicate quickly. No other medium gives you near-instantaneous ability to corral volunteers, solicit donations, or fire off rapid response to voter questions and media coverage. They keep people involved with targeted and tailored messages.
Our most effective clients use a combination of fancy newsletters and plain-text “personalized” e-mails to simultaneously build relationships and disseminate information.
Volunteers' roles must be carefully managed
Too many campaigns let a volunteer control their website content. While very cost-effective, this decision often has undesired consequences. Volunteers can’t be counted on to update the site as quickly as campaigns often need.
Many campaigns throughout the country have outdated websites – sometimes even months or years out of date. Small and mid-sized campaigns that can’t afford to hire a professional web-development company have found great success in tools that will allow non-technical campaign staff to build and manage their own sites.
Websites can and should be a two-way street
Tantamount to creating a dynamic web site is the ability to collect feedback from supporter and potential supporters.
By making it easy for people to sign up for mailing lists or volunteer activities, RSVP for events, or submit electronic credit card contributions, campaigns at all levels have found it easier to do donor and volunteer management by utilizing their web site.
Many of our campaigns have found great success by using custom web-forms for specific fundraising events or volunteer activities. Used in conjunction with customized broadcast emails and an integrated back-end database, these campaigns have been able to contact more supporters in less time than ever previously possible.
There's more to the Internet than websites and e-mail
Web-based applications allow a campaign team to work together, when they aren’t gathered in a centralized location. Our clients, regardless of size, are now using a single campaign-wide voter, fundraising, accounting and volunteer database that they can access from any computer. This allows a coordinated, synchronized staff for campaigns without centralized headquarters, and a lot more flexibility for campaigns that do have an HQ. Our fundraisers, accountants and campaign staff can all benefit from each other’s information, and they don’t all have to work from the same location.
Everyone on-line is also off-line
Too often, campaign forget that those they reach through online media are also flesh-and-blood human beings, whom they can, and should, contact face to face, call on the phone, and send printed materials.
Our most successful clients have not relied on online communications as their only mode of contact. The Internet is best used in conjunction with off-line activities. Our clients are collecting e-mail addresses when contacting voters to make follow-up easier and cheaper. They’re maximizing their exposure by printing their website address on all of their materials. They send supporters reminders of upcoming events and precinct walks via e-mail.
Behind each e-mail address is a real person; when campaigns treat them like real people, those addresses become more valuable to those campaigns.
The best is yet to come
Technology is changing at an incredible rate. Who knows what will be next? There are some very exciting experiments with websites, blogs, IM, mobile phones, handhelds and more. Campaigns can be extremely creative in their use of high-tech contact methods – sometimes the most effective tactics are just unusual uses for everyday tools. Just remember, on Election Day, it doesn’t matter which campaign has the best technology, but rather which has delivered its message to the voters most effectively.