Digital Campaigning Underutilized

American politicians have underutilized the digital campaign trail, and candidates that grasp this powerful tool might be better positioned for 2004 elections. Data from a joint report from the Institute for Politics Democracy and the Internet (IPDI) and the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that campaigners are starting to catch on to the electronic power of the people, but they have a long way to go to reach their constituencies.

“In the next campaign, more people will use the Internet to get political information. Billions more emails will fly back and forth. The number of politically related sites will proliferate. And fewer candidates will be behind the times online. Internet politics is moving from the toddler stage to something much more mature,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The findings were culled during October and November 2002 surveys of American adults, along with a questionnaire answered by managers and communications directors for campaigns in closely contested races, and a content analysis of campaign information as it appeared on the home pages of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo. The report also draws on content analysis of 102 candidate Web sites, and IPDI’s daily monitoring of the 2002 online campaigns.

Unfortunately, the campaign professionals that were surveyed were almost evenly split on whether they would put more effort into a Web site in the next election, and many used the Web to build communication with press, rather than citizens.

The report revealed that senior campaign staff members found the Internet to be most effective for general research, managing press relations, and recruiting and mobilizing volunteers. Surprisingly, the Web was found to be less effective for advertising and testing messages, and the study noted that online advertising efforts seemed to be “stuck in neutral.”

That is likely to the change as the the role of Internet strategist becomes a standard in future campaigns. Rainie believes the current crop of campaign Internet strategists will expand as people figure out there might be a market for such expertise. With that accomplished, a merger or buyout of the best Internet strategists and their firms by traditional political consulting companies – many of which already offer Internet expertise as part of their suite of services to candidates and campaigns – is likely to occur.

The lack of online campaigning didn’t go unnoticed by voters, as the report noted an overall dissatisfaction among online citizens. Comparative survey data from Pew revealed that people who have used the Internet to get political news and information were less likely to find what they were looking for than those who have sought health information and information from government agency Web sites. Furthermore, political information seekers had fewer bookmarks of favorite sites than health and government information seekers.

Interestingly, U.S. Government sites experienced a growth spurt since the Pew/IPDI study was conducted, garnering an overall 26 percent increase in traffic from December 2002 to February 2003 to nearly 45 million Internet users.

“Government sites are an excellent source for information, and in most cases the resources these sites provide come free of charge,” said Greg Bloom, senior Internet analyst, Nielsen//NetRatings.


Top U.S. Federal Government Brands
(U.S., Home and Work)
December 2002
Unique
Audience (000)
February 2003
Unique
Audience (000)
Percent
Growth
12/02-2/03 (000)
Total Unique Audience for All Federal
Government Sites
35,668 44,885 26%
U.S. Dept. of the Treasury 4,763 11,787 147%
U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration 2,334 5,234 124%
U.S. Dept. of Education 2,252 4,345 93%
U.S. Executive Branch 1,486 2,680 80%
U.S. Dept. of State 1,179 2,117 80%
FirstGov 775 1,381 78%
U.S. Dept. of Labor 1,189 1,992 68%
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 557 914 64%
U.S. Dept. of Energy 1,016 1,653 63%
U.S. National Archives & Records Administration 584 894 53%
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings, February 2003

Of the 46 million people that the Pew/IDPI study found to have used the Internet for political news and information – up from 33 million in 2000 – 22 percent said they went online specifically to get information about the 2002 campaign. More than one-third (34 percent) said that information they found online made them decide to vote the way they did.

More than three-quarters (79 percent) of the Internet users who sought political information in 2002 were looking for candidate records; 32 percent registered their opinions in online polls; 30 percent got information about where to vote; 10 percent participated in online discussions about the elections; and 6 percent contributed to candidates.

E-mail may be the key to how the Web will be won in future campaigns – if political professionals figure out how to make the most of the messages.

“We found that campaigners increasingly appreciate the value of a good email list, said Dr. Michael Cornfield, IPDI Research Director. But they haven’t come to grips with the new crafts of producing, promoting, and managing online content.”

A full two-thirds of those who used the Internet for political activity sent or received campaign-related email, however 34 percent of them used the medium as a method to transmit jokes about the campaign. Also, 34 percent received email relating to campaign endorsements or opposition; 22 percent sent email related to their political preferences; 24 percent signed up for political e-newsletters; and 22 percent got or sent email relating to get-out-the-vote efforts.

“E-mail and the Web are tailor made for political communication and voter mobilization, so it’s safe to say that every trend we’ve seen since 1996 will grow dramatically during the 2004 presidential election,” commented Rainie.

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