Candidates' Web Campaigns Take Center Stage

  |  February 27, 2004   |  Comments

Political candidates have learned to market themselves online.

At the January Iowa caucus in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, when the surprise victor stood up to make his speech, the sign on the podium said it all: JohnKerry.com.

"He was saying, 'You want to learn more about me, come to my Web site and find out everything there is to know.' A candidate leveraging the Internet for marketing purposes in a way that has never happened before," said Jesse James Garrett, a partner in user-experience firm Adaptive Path.

Though most think it all started with Howard Dean, who raised some $40 million via his Web site and influenced the other contenders with Web-based marketing and campaigning innovations, the true forerunner was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain connected 500 people around the country in a live Webcast and raised $200,000 in one night after his victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

The most recent online wrinkle in the Presidential campaign is the one-minute video spot on President Bush's Web site attacking John Kerry.

"That was very, very smart," said Dan Melleby of Westhill Partners, a consulting firm that advised Richard Gephardt's campaign. "You have to give credit where credit is due. It was smart financially, it was an interesting strategy and probably effective.

"They [the Bush campaign] got the news out via press releases and the media gave it more coverage than just running it on network TV in small regions would have gotten. It was a smart tactic to fire a shot across Kerry's bow and force him to respond."

"The attack video against Kerry is good. They're using the medium well," said Phil Noble, founder of Politics Online, which provides tools for online fundraising and campaigning.

The Bush ad portrayed Kerry as a tool of special interests, saying he had accepted more special interest money than any other senator.

Kerry came back with a video titled "More Than Anyone." The video flashes a display of the dollar amounts of contributions it accuses Bush of accepting from oil and gas corporations, drug companies and banking and investment firms. Then, as a photo of Bush appears a voiceover asks, "Who's the politician who's taken more special-interest money than anyone in history?"

At the very end of the ad, Kerry appears, saying, "I'm John Kerry and I approved this ad because together we can defeat George Bush and the powerful special interests."

This is a significant move because Kerry did not have to make it. Web ads, unlike television commercials, do not fall under new election laws requiring candidates to appear at the end of their own advertisements confirming they approved the ads.

"Candidates now must appear in the ads saying it's authorized by him or her -- but Internet ads are exempt," said Rand Ragusa, founder of Voter Interactive, which designed skyscraper ads for the Kerry campaign.

Bush, on the other hand, does not appear in the Kerry attack ad.

"A lot of people on the Bush-Cheney team had decided they didn't want him [Bush] dipping his toes in the mire of negative politics yet," said Melleby. So the team took advantage of the Internet loophole and put the ad online so the candidate would not have to be directly associated with it.

Candidates' Web sites have been the hubs of their online campaigns, and Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race last week, was the pioneer this campaign season. Every other Democratic candidate imitated his site, almost feature for feature.

The left-hand side of the Dean site was devoted to marketing messages. The top message was a prominent "Contribute" link -- the link clicked around the world, or at least the United States, as thousands of people "joined the $100 revolution," as the Dean Web site put it. A letter-writing tool enlisted supporters to reach out to potential converts, and customizable posters and e-cards invited were available for participants to send.

Though Dean was the innovator, these elements of his site were judged satisfactory, not outstanding, in a study of the candidates' Web sites conducted by Adaptive Path. Noble was even less kind.

"Probably the ugliest sites ever have been Jesse Ventura's and Howard Dean's," said Noble. "You look at the stuff on the Dean site, it was huge cut and paste icons." However, Noble said, "that's okay. The features themselves were effective. The whole purpose of the site is to get people to do stuff in the campaign." In that regard, Dean's site was extraordinarily effective.

Following in Dean's footsteps, the left-hand sides of the Kerry, Edwards and Kucinich sites feature fundraising and volunteer recruitment messages. Kerry's marketing messages were judged most effective of all the candidates still in the race by Adaptive Path.

"The Kerry site is the most effective in marketing the candidate to undecided voters," said Garrett, author of the report. "It was one of the only sites that devoted significant attention to reaching out to people who had not yet made up their minds."

Noble agreed. "Kerry is the upmarket site. They've had a lot of resources, they've had some good people who have been very professional."

Westhill Partners' Melleby had a different slant.

"The Kerry site is not that easy to find your way around on," he said. "It's a bit of a challenge for someone who is not tech savvy." Melleby favored the Web site of John Edwards.

"The Edwards site is much clearer. It's very navigable. The designers did a great job of making sure the right information got across without making it cluttered," Melleby said.

While the Edwards site may be organized, it's graphically inconsistent, according to Garrett.

"The Edwards site does feature a 'Contribute' button on the upper left-hand side. However, there are so many conflicting colors, typefaces and messages, it's difficult to focus on anything," Garrett said.

In contrast, Noble applauded the Edwards site, saying, "He has done a good job of making his site reflective of him," a critically important marketing technique. "He posted his mother's chocolate chip pie recipe -- that's folksy, Southern. They've come a long way pretty quick."

The Kucinich site home page has an easy-to-distinguish "Contribute" button and also prominently features specific courses of action for supporters, winning kudos from Adaptive Path. Noble gave the site the "Little Engine That Could" award.

"Kucinich would get the award for getting the most for the least out of his Internet stuff," Noble said. "He's done a good job of using the medium to organize his supporters and get contributions. He has been very aggressive and used the site well to market himself."

Most of the candidates' sites also feature some sort of blogging feature. The blogging element was another one of Dean's innovations, and was available via RSS feeds on the Dean site.

Though Melleby was unimpressed by the Kucinich site overall, he gave kudos to the Kucinich blog.

"He shares a humorous diatribe from the campaign trail that makes it attractive and interesting," Melleby said. "People feel more a part of something when it's humorous and touches them personally."

The Dean blog was filled with "patriotic drivel," Melleby said, and the other candidates "could put more character into their blogs."

On the other hand, Kerry's site drew accolades from Adaptive Path for offering the latest posts in the blog in a tabbed window on the home page. Such a feature "can help draw supporters into the community," the report noted. Edwards' site has a similar feature.

"Web sites are becoming a channel, like a TV channel. Videos, action, here's what I did today, here's all the unofficial sites for the candidate, here's what they're saying today," Noble summed up. "It's a new medium we don't understand how to use. We're only just beginning. It is the proverbial first day of the revolution."

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