Category Archives: politics

The Next Generation of Election Websites

Here are highlights from another great panel at the Politics Online Conference, which probed the evolution of campaign websites and captured what we have learned.

Republican Strategist Rob Kubasko began with an entertaining brief history of online campaigns.

1996 – all about having a website

2000 – proved that donations could take place via the web in a big way (McCain)

2002- the “kitchen sink” syndrome of cramming everything into a website

2004 – the buzz is about blogs and communities

2006 – enter online video, a la the George Allen moment

2008 – the year of social networks

Kubasko put it simply that campaign success starts with messaging, is advanced by design and is driven through online tools.  I liked one line he said about design: “If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.”  It’s like the old adage in branding that if you’re about everything, you’re about nothing.

Sam Graham Felsen, who served as chief blogger at the Barack Obama Campaign and came over from the traditional journalism world (the Nation), said the big winner for the campaign was the least sexy tool…email.  It alone was the leader in generating offline actions.

Sam Graham Felsen

Sam Graham Felsen

Meanwhile, he talked about the message strategy of the campaign from the outset that emphasized less about the candidate and more about people and building a movement around the values the candidate embodied.  He recalled that the majority of his blog posts at the beginning of the campaign were not about Obama, but about people around the country who wanted and hoped for change.

Plus, this message, Felsen said, was made that much more poignant through online video.  The Obama campaign had a videography team that shot and edited like 2,000 videos and got as a granular as creating videos for every Obama affinity group imaginable.  That was very helpful in story telling and giving a medium for people to relate to the campaign’s values.

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Nicco Mele reiterated the importance of email, saying that in a recent talk at Harvard, David Plouffe said he wished he sent more email (to the astonishment of many who were flooded with Obama emails during the campaign).  A very smart thing Nicco said afterwards was that Dominos Pizza could have managed its crisis so much better had it collected customers’ emails and therefore had a direct channel to its target audience .

Mele’s key takeaways from 2008:

Video proved a transformative medium in message delivery

Organizing means better data collection and management

Good fundraising means good email lists and copy

Headed to the Politics Online Conference

I’ll be back at the Politics Online Conference in Washington, DC this weekend and early next week.  The conference is put on by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University and is being co-sponsored this year by Campaigns & Elections magazine.

I found out about the conference last year, after I interviewed the Institute’s Director Julie Germany, for a research project I was doing on the confluence of the social web and public affairs for my master’s program.  Julie encouraged me to nominate some work I had done for Daniel Biss’ campaign for state assembly and sure enough we won two awards, known as the Golden Dot Awards, at the conference.  By the way, Julie is the most consistently funny and entertaining Twitter user I have ever seen.  Anyone looking to do Twitter right, should see how she does it.

So, I’m headed back to the Politics Online Conference this year.  I will be moderating a panel for one of the conference’s many interesting breakout sessions, called:

Tinkering Your Web Strategy: Using Analytics to Understand Your Traffic and Making Adjustments

April 21, 3:30 p.m., Meridian D & E

Description: Who is coming to your candidate’s website? What do users do when they get there? How did they find you in the first place? Where are users who visit your site coming from?

Web analytics can open doors to a political or public affairs campaign to understand their web traffic and adjust their communications strategy accordingly. Having a great website with all the bells and whistles looks great on the surface. But, how do we read a web analytics report and what indicators do we look for? How do we make adjustments? Answers to these questions are vital for campaigns at any level.

·        Ben Weisberg (Account Manager on the Elections and Issue Adcocacy Team at Google)

·        Mark Skidmore (Blue State Digital)

·        Dan Siroker (Founder of CarrotSticks)

·        Jesse Greenberg (independent strategic communications and public affairs consultant)

I’ll be blogging on conference highlights next week and at the conclusion of Sunday’s e-democracy unconference.

April 7 Election Day, Looking to Fill Quigley’s Seat

I just returned from a trip to Israel and I’ve certainly come back at an interesting time!  The awaited culmination to the IL-5 race to replace Rahm Emanuel is here (along with many interesting local races).  Plus, it’s the start of baseball season, which during the week of Passover and Easter, is truly the sign that spring and rebirth is upon us.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Source: Chicago Tribune

Thanks to Progress Illinois, and other local bloggers, I’ve been kept in the loop on what is happening in the IL-5 race and who might replace Mike Quigley on the Cook County Board assuming he wins today.

Greg Hinz at Crain’s goes down the list of potential appointees, who local Democratic Committeemen will be choosing among as Quigley’s successor this coming weekend.

While there are some very good candidates on that list, I’m struck at the centralized authority given to the local Democratic Machine to choose who they want on the County Board.  The Board’s reputation is not exactly squeaky clean, with reformers, independents and good governance board members few and far between.  That being said, I hardly see the committeemen choosing who they want to fill the Board opening with someone that will be best for the Board and County residents and not best for local committeemen’s interests.

I know this is the process and to change the process will be a herculean task unto itself.  But, we may be able to start somewhere.  If not in this appointment, then in similar situations arising in the future.  We can start by simply having a member of the community create a poll or website where residents can register their name and zip code and select amongst a list of known contenders.  People’s identities can be protected and only the results could be published.  This would provide a benchmark to measure local residents’ sentiment as to who they want to see in open government seats and to at least begin to start holding those tasked with appointments accountable.

I think this will be a good basis to not only let committeemen know who voters want to see appointed, but for voters to see that when committeemen are placing people in office who will do what they say at the detriment to what voters want, they have the first step in holding them accountable.  Hopefully, that accountability will be a good starting point to getting local voters agitated enough to create a more transparent process than leaving filling vacant seats up to the local Machine.

Finally, a Conversation

Saw this interview of Tom Geoghegan from the Interview Show hosted at the Hideout in Wicker Park.  He clearly was at his best in this conversational style interview.  He’s given some of the most reasoned-based policy arguments I’ve heard up until now in the IL-5 race.  That is highly respectable and a service to the voting public.  Watch the video:

Google’s Centrality in IL-5

Ramsin Canon beat me to the punch to bring up Google’s role in the IL-5 election.  Canon’s great post over at Gaper’s Block discusses which candidates are using Google AdWords to drive searches to their respective websites.

I had the opportunity to sit down with someone close to Sara Feigenholtz’s campaign to discuss, among other things, what role online media plays in the campaign’s strategy.

I’ll start with blogs.  In this race, we both agreed that blogs are really important.  First, because traditional media  has not covered this race with nearly the depth or tenacity as the blogging community, blogs covering this race seem to be trumping traditional media as go-to sources for campaign information.  Second, blogs have the indelible ability to show up in Google alerts and Google searches.  In short, this means any person actively searching for information is more apt to wind up at one of the blogs covering this race than one of this city’s local papers.

For campaigns, this means blogger outreach ought to remain a fairly high priority.  Thus far, I’ve had a range of experiences of campaigns reaching out or not reaching out to me as a blogger regularly covering this race.  Maybe I’ll save that for another post.

The ironic thing, and the point of disagreement in our conversation about online media, was the role of Google AdWords.  I feel like Google AdWords are extremely important and could be some of the smartest media spend in a campaign.  My counterpart felt differently.

Google is so important though for exactly the same reasons campaigns buy expensive TV and direct mail campaigns.  The 2008 election proved that online social media was great at aggregating campaign supporters and channeling their energies into productive efforts on behalf of campaigns.  Social media was not good at converting undecided voters.  That’s where Google AdWords enters and can do it cheaper and more effectively.

I would characterize TV and direct mail as the “shotgun” approach in attempt to reach everyone and hoping that out of the recipients, there are undecided voters who will be persuaded.  The research I have seen shows it will take three to five pieces of direct mail to effectively persuade voters.  TV is different in that Americans still rely on TV as the top source for political news.  Though very expensive, I do believe in the value of smart TV ad buys.

Google AdWords though can help offset the high cost of direct campaign advertising in what marketers characterize “push” vs. “pull” advertising.  Google searches are actions taken on by internet users searching for campaign information.  As a campaign, why not show up alongside organic search results to let that internet user know your campaign thinks you might be looking “me”?

At the end of the day, there is no one communications strategy that 100 percent works over another one.  There are strengths and weaknesses in each advertising discipline.  That’s why the best campaigns will have an integrated approach to figure out what works, what doesn’t, what makes the most sense, what is most cost effective, etc.

Though it may be unfair to judge which campaign has done the best advertising job thus far since not all campaigns’ paid advertising have begun yet, like Gapers Bloc, I agree that Charlie Wheelan has a leg up.  The campaign’s Google AdWords buy and willingess to take a risk on a TV ad and the place it very granularly in local cable markets really demonstrates some good judgement.  Let’s see how the others adjust.

Your Senator/Congressman on YouTube

Carlos Allevato

Flickr Image: Carlos Allevato

Erick Schonfeld over at Techcrunch insightfully posted about YouTube’s effort to scale Congressional and Senatorial videos by creating  stand-alone pages.

As Erick points out, traffic is slow.  At the time of writing this blog, only 50 subcribers signed up for the Senate page and 67 signed up for the Congessional page.

Erick writes:

“Nobody was watching these videos before. Putting them altogether in their own channel is not going to make them more popular. If Senators and Congressman want to use YouTube as a direct channel to the electorate, that’s great. But can someone teach these folks a little about Web video production values? They come across as little more than commercials.”

The moral of this story is that just because YouTube is another destination to post content does not mean people will visit or engage with that content if it is not tailored to the medium.

In other words, our members of Congress seem to be recycling their made-for-TV spots and communications culture and posting it to YouTube.  But, YouTube calls for something different.  It calls for taking down the barriers to the electorate.  Stop communicating to people and start communicating with people.

The strength of online communication in public affairs is the ability to make a call to action and see it through by working with and alongside the electorate.  That means taking the time to answer questions, updating posts and speaking to people like they were sitting with them in your living room – not on a TV set in their living room.

I’m curious to see who will get this and utilize this opportunity. the Next Generation in Content Sharing, a Brooklyn startup founded by Harvard grad Sam Lessin, is the most encompassing and useful technology tool I’ve found in 2008.

A months ago, a colleague asked for my recommendation of the best online project management tool.  I had experience using Basecamp, and I still think it’s a great tool, especially for using over extended periods of time. Plus, for simple document sharing and commenting, it’s a very simple and useful site that I would recommend today.

However, is truly the next generation in content sharing, the first tool of its kind that truly incorporates the social web as a content creator along with word-processing and presentation software. works by creating, what it calls “drops,” a non-searchable and private portal (can be password protected) to share content with whomever the drop creator chooses.  In a few clicks, I was able to share video and audio files very seamlessly.  Check out this demo video to view how their tool works:

After using, the slickest thing about creating, sharing and responding to drops is the array of ways to upload and respond to content.  I can use my Facebook account, phone, email and more to reply to  That sort of usefulness represents the very best of the social web and is definitely ahead of the curve with regard to content creation and sharing.  In other words, the more ways for me to use, the increased liklihood that I will continue to use it.  

For public affairs, I see this tool as being innovative in two ways.  First, as I alluded to earlier, as project management tool, can is the next generation in file sharing.

In addition, I see as a new way for candidates to reach voters and volunteers during an election.  Precisely because drops are  non-searchable, is uniquely positioned to share all sorts of media with an “insider” group, like volunteers or even more generally, supporters.  Drops are will be great for community building and for giving voters a greater sense of ownership of a political campaign.  Drops holding a variety of content can even help replace (or work alongside) email as the best mode of interactive information sharing.  

As I’ve highlighted before in this blog, candidates need to bring down barriers between their campaigns and their publics. can help.  

We’ve got at least one special election coming up in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District, Rahm Emmanuel’s vacated seat.  Here’s a good chance to put this tool to work in what promises to be a close race between at least two progressive, well-known candidates.