WWW Smackdown: Political Primaries Online, Part 1

If you want to learn something about public relations and marketing, pay attention to presidential campaigns.

Political campaign managers, particularly the ones who run presidential campaigns, are the masters of their trade. In the documentary “The War Room,” the dynamic duo of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos take viewers through the paces of non-stop crisis communications and spin.

This season, however, the Internet is playing a more prominent role in the art of campaigning and political fundraising, and the masters – just like the rest of us – are struggling with how to best utilize this newfangled medium.

We’ve therefore been taking a look at the official campaign web sites of the two front-runner Republican candidates – Texas Governor George W. Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain – and the two Democratic candidates – Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Pass the eCollection Plate

McCain’s campaign boasts its site has raised over $2.5 million, nearly half of which came in after his winning the New Hampshire primary. That’s no surprise since the minute you get to his home page, a pop-up window (called an interstitial in the online marketing vernacular) asks for money. Last week (Feb. 10), the Republican hopeful had an online fundraising event, a sort of mouse-side chat with the candidate that attracted some 500 people willing to pay $100 each to interact with him.

After you get past the somewhat obnoxious “gimme-money” window, you can use pull-down menus to select McCain’s positions on certain issues such as gun control. In an easy-to-read FAQ format, the site states his positions. For example, he opposes federally mandated waiting periods in the purchase of firearms. (Why not? Two weeks later you’re not pissed off anymore!)

Continuing the e-commerce tradition of fundraising, you can also visit the Campaign Store and purchase buttons, T-shirts, caps and other red-white-and-blue merchandise.

Lessons: You can make money on the Internet without having an IPO. People will pay to visit a web site it if means they can virtually hang out with someone they admire. In other words, people will pay for exclusive content or entertainment even if no one is being webcasted wearing frilly underwear (at least visibly, that is).

Have I Mentioned I Used to Play Basketball?

Democratic candidate Bill Bradley comes in second in online fundraising with just over $1.5 million raised since the Bradley campaign launched the site in March 1999. In addition to developing a web site, the Bradley camp has implemented some online marketing strategies. Bradley has made appearances on others’ sites – sites that already have the traffic.

For example, last November Bradley participated in a live chat on Yahoo Chat, along with Politics.com. He’s also made appearances on some health sites touting his plan for healthcare reform.

Bradley’s site uses star power, but not his own. Being a former NBA basketball player, he’s enlisted the help of His Airness, Michael Jordan, on his home page. Unfortunately, all you get is a Real Video clip of a TV commercial featuring Jordan. Bradley’s site uses a lot of video, from coverage of rallies to press conferences of groups who endorse his candidacy.

You also don’t get hit with the “donate now” pop-up window until you click on the Bradley Store link. They wait until they’ve let you in the door before hitting you up.

Lessons: Marketing on the Internet goes beyond building a site and waiting for visitors. Regardless of how much you believe in your product, a little celebrity endorsement can’t hurt. Read: Nothing sells itself.

Next week we’ll visit the Gore and Bush campaign sites to see what lessons we can learn from them.

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