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Communicating With The Times

Political parties are learning to campaign with 21st-century technology
Halifax Chronicle Herald

Dec. 04, 2005

Podcasts? Blogs? Political e-cards? Are Canada’s federal parties embracing 21st-century technology?

Alex Langshur of Hillwatch.com, which focuses on how public organizations use the Internet, says the parties are using technology in a better way now than they did during the last campaign 18 months ago, but their focus needs refining.

"There’s a tremendous effort by all of them, including the Bloc (Quebecois), to engage the youth vote," he said, referring to party websites. "The irony is, young people don’t vote."

Some new features found on party websites play into this problem. One case is Conservative Podcasting, where subscribers can receive campaign ads and tour updates.

"When was the last time you saw an older or senior person walking around with an iPod?" said Mr. Langshur, a partner at Hillwatch.

He also said the NDP website uses fonts that are difficult to read and the Bloc home page is primarily French.

"We found it difficult to access the English language on the Bloc site," he said. "But they’re smart; they know their audience."

Hillwatch tries to compare political use of the Internet in Canada to other parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom’s. Mr. Langshur said, however, that the Americans are most adept with new technologies and Net-based ideas in their campaigns. He uses the examples of "meet-ups," developed by supporters of Howard Dean in last year’s election.

"Think of a Tupperware party in the 21st century," he said. Meet-ups allow a candidate to select a time to present ideas and address issues in a "peer-to-peer social networking" over the Net.

Mr. Langshur said they are a revolutionary, grassroots way to engage and energize supporters. But Canadian parties haven’t caught on yet.

"For the Canadian system, it’s ‘volunteer and we’ll put you in touch,’ " he said. "So there’s no peer-to-peer system."

One area where Mr. Langshur said the parties are adapting to serve tech-savvy supporters is with Really Simply Syndication. Subscribers can have information from a party’s website fed to their own blogs or home pages. Right now, the service is available on the Conservative and NDP sites. Mr. Langshur said this is one of the best ways to rally and inform supporters and volunteers.

"It’s about taking every opportunity to get their message out."

Blogs, or web logs, are another way parties and their supporters are getting messages out and passed around during the election campaign.

BlogsCanada.ca, owned and published by Jim Elve, offers bloggers a forum to debate and join discussions in a "multi-partisan" environment. He said traffic on his site has increased from 1,500 to 2,600 visitors since the campaign began and it’s just a matter of time before the parties take advantage of this opportunity to interact with the electorate.

"I’m thinking this could be the breakthrough election where candidates realize they have a place to advertise through blogs," he said.

Mr. Langshur said Hillwatch will release a report on the effectiveness of party use of all the technologies in mid-December.

"We want to give the parties a little bit of soak time," he said. "We’ll see how it all unfolds."

( peverest@herald.ca)

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955