In Australia, most elections take place during the normal, general election period. The accepted wisdom is that local campaigns make up, at most, 3 percent of a candidate’s primary vote. The rest comes from the central campaign from party head office: television ads, the leader’s personal appeal, the party’s policies and so on.
There are some simple things that local campaigns can do however to maximise their vote and try to reach that 3 percent boost.
Many of these ideas are more widely applicable for running online campaigns in general, and for unions in particular.
1. Have a presence on the main social networking sites
Set up a profile or page on Facebook, and depending on your campaign’s demographics, on MySpace, and Twitter.With over 6 million Australians on Facebook, 2.3 million on MySpace and around 670,000 Australians on Twitter, these are social networking sites you cannot afford to ignore. If you already have a profile on Facebook, consider setting up an official Facebook page, so you can benefit from the many extra features that pages have over groups or profiles (see here for an example of the benefits).
Just because Facebook and Twitter are the flavour of the month, don’t neglect MySpace. MySpace is still used by a large number of young people (high-schoolers), and it can be a way for you to build a longer-term relationship with teens, especially if that is a big demographic in your electorate.
If someone on your campaign team has a video camera and some experience, set up a YouTube and Vimeo channel (check here for how to do this on YouTube, and go here to set up a YouTube politician’s channel). Recording and broadcasting short campaign messages is a good way to directly talk with your electors, and sites like YouTube can be easily shared by your supporters on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have a call to action, such as donating, volunteering or joining your campaign mailing list.
2. Have a blog on your website
Get a campaign website if you don’t already have one. In addition to your policies, biography and how to subscribe to your mailing list, you should also make sure you have a blog. There are many easy options to install a blog on your website, and most of them are free. Using WordPress, Moveable Type or Google’s Blogger are easy to set up, and most offer a way to install or embed the blog into your own website. I personally prefer WordPress, but depending on what content management system your website uses, you may have to use another blogging platform.
Blogs are very important for search engine optimisation reasons. Blogs help you draw traffic to your site through online search engines. When most people want to find out information about a candidate, they got to their search engine (e.g. Google, Yahoo or Bing). Most blogging software is optimised for search engines, which means that it pushes your website higher up the search page. Blogs also give you an opportunity to engage with your electors and supporters. Many voters will appreciate the transparency – and you can use it to promote your events and activities.
You don’t need to personally update your blog every day. Get someone on your campaign to add blog posts – but make sure they don’t pretend to post as you. Keep your posts and the posts of your staff distinct.
Don’t expect to be getting hundreds or thousands of page views or visitors, or scores of comments on your website straight away. Promote your blog and your website in all your other communications – emails to supporters, ads in the local paper, on flyers you hand out while door-knocking. You can also advertise online…
3. Build a campaign email list
Email is still the most effective online campaigning tool. Having a large list of supporters and electors means you can directly communicate with them, without the filter of the local news. Email is very effective at building engagement and directing people to your website.
There are lots of email service providers that allow you to create email campaigns, and get data about opens. I’ve got a post here (Email is the “killer app” for online campaigns) that goes into some detail about using email.
Early in your campaign, you should be aiming to build your campaign email list – have a sign up form at all of your campaign events (fundraisers, street-stalls, etc). The people on your campaign list will be useful as volunteers, donors and of course, eventually they should vote for you.
4. Advertise online with Facebook and Google
Online advertising is an increasingly effective way to get your message to your target audience. Most online advertising lets you micro-target your ads using key words. Google Adsense and Facebook Ads are probably the most effective online advertising vehicles, although there are others (e.g. MySpace and Yahoo). Most of them allow you to set a daily, weekly or campaign budget, so you can carefully manage your advertising spend. Even a small budget of a few hundred dollars can pay big dividends. Google has a page especially for political ads – so they’ve made it easy for you.
Facebook ads can let you target people in your electorate, and also target people who share your values. Your ad can direct potential supporters to your Facebook page, or to your website.
Each ad should have a specific purpose (“call to action”), such as building your campaign email list, getting people to donate, or volunteer, or vote for you on election day.
You can also use online ads to respond to attacks against you by your opponent. By putting your response online (such as on your blog or as a YouTube video), you can use key words search terms on Google to make sure that when an elector looks for more information about the attack, they will see a link to your response. Generally, there is no more than a 3 day window for this kind of response, so act quickly.
5. Use Google Analytics or other analytics programs
There are lots of analytics programs out there, some free, some paid. The bench-mark is Google Analytics, a free service. By setting up a Google Analytics account, you can get detailed information about who comes to your website and how they use it. Google Analytics can be integrated with most email service providers, as well as Google Adsense. Google also offers other free services for websites, such as Website Optimizer, that allow you to experiment in changes to your website to make it easier to use.
I should also mention a few useful resources for website testing and optimisation that can be used by relative novices. A useful tool that I’ve used on the Creative Unions website is Usabilla, an excellent free website usability testing service. They allow free testing for up to 25 users. Jackob Nielsen, the father of web usability, suggests that you only need 5 test subjects to find around 90% of the problems with your website. Testing your campaign website has never been easier (or cheaper). Just make sure you act on the findings.
6. Monitor the media and social networks
There are many free tools that allow you to track news stories about your candidate, opponent or other important topics. Google Alerts can give you immediate email notification of news stories based on key words you choose.You can also get alerts for blogs, allowing you to respond to criticisms online, reply to questions or thank supporters.
Twitter has excellent tools to allow you to monitor key words in people’s updates. Twitter Search is basic, but there are other tools, such as Twendz, which gives you more information about what people are saying about a key word. This can be very useful to get up to the minute information about what is happening locally, or what people are saying about your, your opponent or the election generally.
7. Make it easy for supporters to donate, volunteer online
Wherever your campaign is online, you need to make it easy for supporters to get involved and help your campaign. There should be a clear way for a supporter to offer to volunteer to help your campaign. You should set up an online donation account. Your communications, online and offline, should emphasise how people can get involved.
Beware and be careful
Everything you do and say online can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection. Once the campaigning starts, be aware that your opponents will be scrutinising your online activities as well as everything you do and say on the campaign trail.
Something will go wrong. Whether it is a misinterpreted comment on your blog, or a “tweet” taken out of context, it is highly likely that something will go wrong.
The best way to handle this mishaps is, like all crisis management, to be honest, acknowledge the mistake, explain how you are remedying the problem, and move on. Ensure your response is timely – within 24 hours is a good benchmark. If possible, break the story on your own terms rather than wait to be called by the local paper or news outlet.
Do not try to hide it. Don’t delete the comment or tweet and hope that no one will notice – there are several websites that scan web pages and cache them, allowing people to look at stored versions of your website days, weeks or even months after you have removed the content.
Google Alerts and similar services will allow you to monitor what is being said, so you can make further responses as time goes on. Internet advertising will also allow you to keep your message on the front page of searches.
Some good rules of thumb to help prepare you for a crisis are:
- Brainstorm with your campaign team some worst-case scenarios: Sit down and think about the worst that could happen. Try to think of ten things that could go wrong – for example: accidentally “friending” a known criminal or other undesirable person; running foul of spam laws; running out of money or a problem with fundraising; accusations of hypocrisy in the campaign (such as having a policy of supporting local businesses, but getting material printed outside the electorate, or supporting strong environmental standards but using unrecyclable paper)
- Make someone responsible for responding to a crisis: Whether it’s the campaign manager or someone else with media/PR/communications experience, make sure there is someone who’s job it is to get on top of a crisis if or when it arises. This will mean that if something does happen, you won’t waste time figuring out who should respond. This person should be responsible for having a plan to respond to campaign hiccups. They should know who to talk to about getting a response out as soon as possible, such as the campaign website maintainer, and the candidate to make a media comment.
- Pre-prepare some online keywords: Think about what keywords people will use to search online for more information about the crisis. Use positive words as well as negative ones. Your press releases, blog posts and videos can be optimised for these search terms, and it will save you time when the crisis hits.
- Have a design, mailer or other material ready: Ask your campaign designer and/or webmaster to have a template ready for you to respond online and offline to the crisis. Having half the work done will mean you can respond much more quickly.
- Find allies: Finding a third party to stand up for you is essential to crisis management. For online mishaps, getting a blogger to comment positively on the crisis, and link to your online response is a good way of getting your message out. Having the third party gives your message increased credibility. Hopefully, through your online engagement, there will be several people you can rely on – even if they are not local constituents.
Remember, online campaigning is not a silver bullet
Just because you have set up a Facebook page or joined Twitter, don’t neglect all of the other important activities of campaigning. You still need to fundraise, door knock, make phone calls, hold street stalls, and engage your electors in the flesh.