What you see isn’t what you get with online politics

Grey. And wanting to pay homage to Barack Obama.

That’s the rather odd impression left from taking a flick through the websites of the Republican contenders to be their party’s 2012 presidential candidate. Grey is the colour of the season, at least on the web. That is an odd choice, you might think, given how many of the candidates are wanting to leave behind the ‘boring grey man’ tag. But it reflects the colour palette which Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign made so popular for political online campaigning. The homage to 2008 extends beyond the choice of grey to include website design and structure — with again many of the sites showing clear similarities (whether deliberately or inadvertently) to those used so successfully by the Obama 2008 campaign.

However, the sameness also extends to functionality and for a broader reason: the range of online technologies used by candidates is now pretty standard, both across parties and in both the U.S. and the UK. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, some geo-lookup for events or groups and the grandfather of them all, email. Add the occasional small bell or whistle and that is pretty much it.

That has big implications for anyone wanting to judge the online success of different campaigns, whether because they are reporting on them, have a professional interest (such as myself, having run the 2001 and 2005 internet general election campaigns for the Liberal Democrats, and now running digital campaigns in the corporate and charity sectors) or are an interested member of the public.

The old days of ‘count the features and say those with the most are the best’ are, thankfully, long gone when it comes to political Internet campaigning. As is common with many technological areas as they mature, after the initial proliferation of features and services, the real success and progress comes with technology that is hidden away behind the scenes — effective management of data, clever analysis of information and so on. During the 2010 UK general election James Crabtree coined the phrase “the unseen technology,” making the point that discussion focuses on the visible whilst the political impact increasingly comes from the invisible.

That turned out to be a prescient prediction, for one of the reasons the Cleggmania surge failed to bring many benefits in marginal seats to the Liberal Democrats was that the party’s backend IT systems were poorly set up to focus dispersed online enthusiasm into concentrated offline vote-winning activity. That is something the Liberal Democrats are now looking to change, by moving over to one of the unseen secrets of Obama’s success, the VAN database system.

In this, the political world is mirroring changes in the commercial world, where the backend data systems of firms as divergent as Tesco and Amazon have been key to their success. Counting widgets on Tesco’s websites or features on Amazon’s offering do not give much of an insight into what is really powering their money-making efforts.

For the outside observer wanting to know how campaigns or companies are faring, that can be frustrating, as the real stories are hidden away from view. But the wise observer knows the limits of what they can see and does not over-analyse the superficial.

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