This book chapter I wrote a few years back is still very relevant as it concentrates on key principles rather than latest baubles, so here it is again with a little smattering of updates. Though I left the reference to Orkut as a little remembrance of times past.
In the early twentieth century, large public meetings and lengthy public speeches were expected of – and needed by – Parliamentary candidates fighting vigorous campaigns. A century on, candidates fighting vigorous campaigns frequently get by without organising any public meetings or giving any public speeches longer than a few minutes of opening remarks at a local organisation’s hustings.
Yet although these forms of personal, direct contact between candidate and voter have declined sharply over the last century, the opportunities for such contact via the internet have increased sharply in the last few years.
We are already at the stage where voters find it surprising if a candidate is not online. Candidates who do not make good use of the internet face losing out on votes, helpers and money.
The two key insights for an effective online presence
First, people increasingly look online for information – so the information a candidate wants to put out needs to be in those places where people look.
There is a saying that anglers use – you need to fish where the fish are. The same applies to politics. You need to put it information where voters are or can be attracted. There isn’t much point putting huge effort into nurturing a presence on Orkut (Google’s social networking site) if Orkut is shunned by just about everyone in the area.
But second, you cannot simply put information online and then sit back and wait. Some people will come, but far more will come if you also effectively promote it.
Who is the audience?
Turning both of those insights into practical steps starts with understanding who the audience is, or might be, for a candidate’s online presence.
It usually has three key parts. Arguably most important of the trio is media – because if journalists pick up information online and then use that in their own stories, that information almost always gets before a much bigger audience than the original online audience.
Just look at the number of views which local candidate films on YouTube receive; it’s a rare clip that gets more than 1,000 views, but it is a rare local paper which has less than 1,000 readers.
Another part of the audience is the internal audience. Whether it is councillors, activists, members, helpers or donors, they all need to be kept happy and motivated. The online world offers many opportunities to do just that, and to turn that extra enthusiasm into extra offline campaigning. This was the big success of the Barack Obama internet campaign. It mobilised people online to give money (largely spent on TV adverts in the offline world) and to go and knock on doors, make phone calls and deliver leaflets (all also aimed at the offline world).
The final part of the audience are the floating voters. The media and the internal audience are ways to get at floating voters too, but there is also a direct online audience.
In previous general elections it has been fairly small for most candidates most of the time, but the audience is growing – and even a small audience is vital in a close-run election. Lynne Featherstone, who gained her seat in 2005, found her online audience in 2005 was already larger than the number of postal voters and audiences of that size are becoming increasingly common.
What information does the audience want?
It is easy to get lost in the blizzard of different online services: websites, blogs, Twitter, instant messaging, email, Facebook, YouTube, Digg and more. Not even Barack Obama’s massive team effectively made use of them all. (Look at his Twitter account during the election campaign for an example of boring, uninteractive minimalism).
As Labour Parliamentary candidate Luke Pollard puts it, “Some candidates get obsessed with Facebook or Twitter. Answer is to ignore the channel and concentrate on the content.”
The best starting place is with a blank sheet of paper and three rows: “media”, “internal audience” and “floating voters”. Write in each row the key pieces of information which they want or which you want them to have.
This list should then guide choices about what is put online and where. It is particularly important to have such a list if one or more technologically savvy people help out with the online campaign. Often such people are relatively new to political campaigning and not that plugged in to the rest of the campaign – so without this list it is easy for the online work to go off at a tangent, drawn along by the clever things the technology can do rather than the key things it must do.
They want to know: name of candidate, photo, brief biography, contact details
I also want them to know: why we can win, five local campaign pledges
They want to know: how the campaign is going, how to help
I also want them to know: success of efforts they’ve made, why they need to help more
They want to know: name of candidate, biography, contact details, views on local hospital, attitude to local school closure
I also want them to know: why we can win, five local campaign pledges, where to vote, how to get a postal vote
There will usually be a large overlap between what a candidate wants people to know and what people actually want to know, but a candidate should aim to do more than just simply provide people with the information they already think they want.
As a final piece of preparation, take a look around the existing online presence from all political parties, the council, the local media and other local news sources (such as bloggers, high profile local tweeters and local organisations). This may highlight gaps in the provision of local information which a candidate can usefully fill.
Many local councillors, for example, have very popular blogs fuelled by the provision of very local information about their area which fills in a gap in the local media coverage. A good example consistently over the years is Steve Beasant’s site. He regularly provides local information which in previous decades would probably have been found by people via local newspapers. However, if there is already extensive similar information provided online then a candidate supplying such information too is going to get much less benefit from it.
Website, blog, Twitter account or something else?
Armed with your basic sketch of the audience, the information to supply and the gaps in the information already out there (which professionals in this field may recognise as a hugely simplified version of the persona and information architecture processes they commonly use), good decisions can be made about what online presence to build.
At the heart of it needs to be a web page of some sort. It could be a website, a blog or a combination of the two.
Blogs often suit the personal tone of voice, which is handy for getting over conviction, beliefs and sincerity. In addition, blogs are to websites as newspapers are to books. They are best suited for regular updates, often briefer stories and building an audience which expects a new edition most days.
As that all means blogs require a regular, personal contribution from someone who can write well, and so are not the best answer for everyone. More traditional websites are more suited to those with less of a writing style or with less time or news to impart. It is a matter of juggling skills, priorities and resources.
Some candidates end up with both a website and a blog, but this rarely works effectively (two different sites to look after, too fragmented an online presence) unless they are closely integrated. Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone even has the same system – WordPress – driving a closely integrated website and a blog which won an Orange Digital Election award.
Whichever option is chosen, populate it with content based on the list of information to supply to the target audiences. If you do go for a blog, you may find Lib Dem Voice’s blogging guide useful.
Extra online content: a checklist
That list will give you most of what you should put online, but here is a checklist of other items to include:
- Email sign up box.
- Online donations.
- Ability to volunteer to help.
- Links to other local sites from your party, councillors and the national / regional party sites and also to your social media feeds.
- Election imprint and data protection disclaimer.
- RSS (or news feeds) – these provide an easy way for people to sign up to automatically receive new content in future. Any decent website or blog system will provide RSS options.
Don’t forget the photographs…
A picture is still worth a thousand words. People skim read online just as they do with printed matter. Photographs catch the eye even when the carefully nuanced sub-clause is not read.
Good action photographs are a must online. The photographs should illustrate the main messages overall and also present the candidate in a positive light.
That sounds obvious, but if you take a quick browse around some candidate websites or blogs you will see that far too often the photo of the candidate looks more like something out of a regional news crime report than an image conveying a positive message. A candidate claiming widespread popular support does themselves no favours being photographed on their own all the time. (And don’t think you can get away with using a member of staff to be the public in a photograph, as Conservative candidate Jacob Rees-Mogg found to his cost with a lengthy expose in the Daily Mail.)
I have seen plenty of photographs where the candidate is a tiny, unrecognisable smudge. But I have yet to see one that makes me recoil saying, “I really don’t want to see that far up your left nostril, thank you very much”. The photographer can always take at least one step closer.
… nor the importance of good headlines
Again, as with print people will skim read so powerful headlines that attract attention are important. It is also the headlines which people may see when viewing links to your site from others sites, in social media or from an RSS reader. Without a good headline they may never come to the site to read the full story.
Finding good advice
In putting together a good website or blog, there are a large number of technical issues to get right. For a candidate the key is not to attempt to learn all of these themselves but to hunt out at least one person who can assist. Beware though the self-anointed expert who isn’t! A genuine expert will understand and be able to help with the items in this short checklist.
- Does the site perform well in search engine results?
- Does the site meet basic accessibility standards? (It’s not only those with limited or no sight who benefit from this; good accessibility standards often overlap with general good practice.)
- Is this site backed up regularly?
- Are traffic statistics available for the site, including how many people visit the site, which are the most popular pages and where the traffic comes from?
Promoting your site
Although the single most important step is providing good quality content, that is not enough on its own. People base whole careers and businesses on promoting websites and blogs, but there are many simple steps a candidate can take.
- Printed literature: leaflets are an excellent place to start. Don’t just stick the address on a leaflet; include stories which give people a positive reason to visit a site online. For example a story about school admission rules might include a link to further details. A good tip when giving web or blog addresses (URLs) is to capitalise words as this makes them easier to read, remember and type – www.MarkPack.org.uk rather than www.markpack.org.uk.
- Verbal promotion: whether it is canvassing, meeting voters in the high street, visiting groups or making speeches, most candidates will find plenty of opportunities to mention their URL. This is a good reason to have a URL which is easy to say and easy to work out the spelling of. If you have a name that is neither, then also get the URLs which are common mistakes and point them at the right site too.
- Use the media: the days when simply launching a website made for a local news story are mostly gone, but with a little imagination stories can often be found. For example, launching an online survey can be a great way of getting a URL in the local newspaper. Remember also your internal audience and look for publicity on other sites that they read. Sites such as ConservativeHome, Labour List and Lib Dem Voice often mention new sites from candidates or MPs and in amongst comments on such pieces you can also often pick up good tips.
- Email: I have often said – and still believe – that I would rather run an election campaign in which the website and blog failed than one in which the email setup failed. Nearly nine in ten UK internet users are on email. That is far more than visit blogs or political websites. Gather up email addresses (with consent to use them) from members, local journalists and voters. Then use them to let people know when significant new content has been added.
- Make content shareable: increasingly people read content online because someone else has recommended it to them. At a technical level you can assist this by having “share this” type buttons on content, such as to send a post to Twitter, Digg or Facebook. It is also about content: think about what content your audiences might want to share with others. Only the very best political rants (or the very worst!) get shared. Useful local information is usually a much stronger bet.
- Make use of social networking: this piece focuses on websites and blogs, but the logic about fishing where the fish are applies very strongly to using Facebook and Twitter in particular. You can use those to drive traffic back to the main site.
- Comment on other sites: many websites and blogs take comments and this can be a good way of taking part in the conversation where the audience already is. It is also likely to expose you to conflicting views from others, which can be a useful check against falling into the myopic mindset about how your party is fantastic and everyone in other parties are the spawn of the devil. As Terence Eden (@edent on Twitter) puts it, “Leave sensible comments on other blogs using a) your real name & b) a link back to your website. Get known & stay visible”. Wise advice.
Promotion works best when someone is consistent across different online services. You may be called both Sam and Samuel, but pick one to use consistently, whether in the name of a blog or in a Facebook profile. As it is the name of the candidate on the ballot paper, first and last names should usually be used rather than Eloise4MP, though with common names you may have to inventive if your name has already been taken on various services.
Consistency also applies to messaging. The online audiences will also be reached by offline campaigning, so the messages in each should compliment – and certainly not contradict – each other.
Flick through the coverage of election candidates getting it wrong online and one theme repeatedly dominates media coverage: supposed exposes of what someone has got up to in their private life based on what has been found online. Some exposes are justified (an election candidate who dresses up in a Nazi uniform should, at the very least, have a very good explanation), whilst others are more hypocritical cant.
As long as there are producers and consumers of such cant, it is wise to be aware of how online information may be fuel to their fires.
Candidates are politicians, private individuals and also often employees. What is said or done with one of these hats on can easily affect the others. Working for a trade-union busting employer may well result in questions being asked of a candidate, but also over-the-top political vitriol about how all members of another party are deceitful can come back to bite a politician at work if they are after new business from … a supporter of that 100% deceitful party.
The two basic steps any candidate should carry out are to search for their own name in Google to check what is out there about them and to check the privacy settings on their own social network profiles, such as Bebo or Facebook, to be sure that only that which they’d be happy to appear on the front page of a newspaper is being shared with anyone other than very close friends and family. To be extra safe, if in doubt do not put something online at all.
Measure and learn
One feature of online campaigning is that it has many facets that are easy to measure. That is usually an advantage, as long as you don’t get lost in the data and remember that statistics such as website visits or size of email list are only the means to an end. Play to this advantage and keep track of some basic statistics so you can see how you are doing, what works and what doesn’t work, what you can do differently and better – and what may no longer be worth doing at all.
Internet usage is now so high right across the UK that in fact more people use the internet than vote in elections. So wherever you are, if you want to get on in politics, get online.
This piece is based on the chapter I wrote for So You Want To Be A Politician…, which you can buy here.