Political campaigns have to plan for any number of unexpected contingencies, and they have to be able to turn on a dime doing it. This is certainly true of campaign Web site development, too.
“There’s the standard procedure for everything, and then there’s the Romney way,” said David Palmer, senior consultant and technical architect at Isobar-owned digital creative and strategy firm Molecular. He ought to know. Palmer was tech lead for development of the official campaign site for Mitt Romney, former Republican presidential candidate and possible McCain running mate. The campaign was headquartered in Molecular’s hometown of Boston.
The “Romney way,” as Palmer puts it, “is mostly fast and very flexible so you can accommodate damn near everything.” Molecular launched the campaign’s official site in January 2008. Until launch in January 2008, the project was codenamed “Marley,” alluding to the Romney family’s recently-passed Weimaraner.
Q: When building the Romney campaign site, how did you approach setting it up to accommodate sometimes unanticipated necessities related to things like SEO or ad landing pages?
A: These were real huge, hot-button topics when we were planning the site.
We had some pretty big objectives in terms of search engines and advertising, and they kind of tied together.
We had to design an infrastructure that made it simple for a search engine to crawl the site… And also the site was designed with primarily clear text so search engines could pick up on it… Most search engines will not typically crawl through dynamically generated links, so we had to make it look like our links were static links.
Q: Tell me about the process.
A: The actual development-to-launch process was rather quick… We designed and built and launched the site within a matter of weeks.
Q: How did they optimize the site after launch for things like advertising?
A: They were really big on banner advertising…One of the things that they learned they could do is tailor the Web site for the constituent groups they were targeting with their advertising. It might be college students for Mitt Romney [for instance]… They would create a page specifically tailored for that banner.
That wasn’t part of the original design though… They would actually create these microsites on the fly… [Campaign staffers] would have to go in and publish content on the fly…without actually asking us to do it… Especially during the debates, they were publishing every few minutes.
The campaigns themselves [have] really latched on to the idea of micro-targeting. That was really, really important, especially for Romney. That’s something that just wasn’t being done before. We would see [an increased number of] volunteers and donations come in when they would do campaigns targeted specifically around an event or a group of people. It was pretty effective to generate donations or for signing up volunteers.
There were also third party systems that we integrated with…and we would have to make sure that the data got into our Web site… From early on it became the central hub for just about all their communication activities.
Q: How did the site evolve, or what was planned for the campaign if it had gone on longer?
A: The idea was that the main goal would be to get the message out there and step up our grassroots initiatives, which was a big addition; there was a big social network we built for them… That was going to be the focus for the site should Mitt Romney become the presidential nominee… Fundraising would still be important, but the main thing would be people and message, because during the primaries it was raise money, raise money.
Q: I assume you check out the Barack Obama and John McCain campaign sites on a regular basis. What do you think of them as they’ve evolved?
A: On Obama’s site, I’ve noticed how they’ve continued to polish navigation… In terms of the overall architecture of the site, they haven’t really changed anything.
It’s sort of the unwritten rule that if you become the presumptive nominee, your Web site drastically changes… The message is becoming more important on Obama’s site. You’re presented with his positions on things, and it’s not so much about defeating Hillary [Clinton] or raising money to go to Michigan or something.
On McCain’s site, right there in the primary navigation are all his beliefs on the issues… Before, the first thing you would see would be a donate button…a big red button.
His site has been radically re-designed. It’s better, it’s more open, it’s not as dark, it’s not as graphically heavy… Early on McCain’s site was very graphically heavy.
Q: Has Molecular worked with political clients in the past?
A: This was a first…We didn’t even know who the candidate was [at first]… We had to use codenames for everything.
Q: Really? Cool. What were some of the codenames?
A: The codename for the project was Marley [the name of Romney’s dog], and we would refer to Mitt as Tim, which is not terribly creative. All throughout our code there’d be references to Marley everywhere.