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Parties’ websites fail to engage voters

Canadian political parties have created ‘virtual lawn signs,’ instead of using the Internet as a way to make themselves more competitive in a close election, writes Isabel Teotonio.
Isabel Teotonio
The Ottawa Citizen
June 23, 2004

Canadian political websites are virtual lawn signs that fail to engage people, while U.S. sites are cyber-hustings, turning visitors into supporters, says an online business consultant.

By not capitalizing on the Internet, Canadian parties are overlooking an opportunity to make themselves more competitive in a close election race, said Alex Langshur, principal of Hillwatch e-services, which is based in Ottawa and Boston.

“They’re not taking advantage of the medium to enable people to connect one to one and to do the social networking that energizes, mobilizes and engages the grassroots. The absence of any really strong call to action makes the websites little more than lawn signs, they’re just sort of passively sitting there.”

In sharp contrast, U.S. websites are strategic campaign assets that raise money, organize supporters, target core communities, boost supporters and communicate key messages. Essentially, they’re multimillion-dollar investments that are kinetic, evolving and innovative, with one sole purpose: to win the election.

“The election in the U.S. is five months away, but their websites are going full steam. They’re setting the stage at an early point to create momentum,” he said, adding it seems as if Canadian webmasters waited for the writ to drop before venturing deep into cyberspace.

Hillwatch spent four weeks monitoring the five main Canadian political party sites, as well as the George W. Bush and John Kerry sites, and produced a report after comparative benchmarking between June 2 and 12.

The report was based on the use of Hillwatch’s proprietary website benchmarking methodology, which checks for online best practice indicators. The most glaring conclusion, said Mr. Langshur, is that Canadian parties and political candidates have a lot of catching up to do if they hope to use technology to their electoral advantage.

One of the bigger failings of Canadian sites is that they offer no substantive means for party grassroots to organize, share practices and co-ordinate outreach, said Mr. Langshur, speaking from his office in Boston.
The information flow on Canadian sites is often unidirectional—from party to public. (The NDP was the sole exception with its e-campaigner site, although it was introduced late in the race.) U.S. sites provide a more decentralized model in which local chapters can access tools, materials and work more independently.

There are also substantial content differences, according to the report. Apart from the fact that some Canadian sites missed basic elements such as search features, site maps and breadcrumb navigational trails, they contained less than half the content of U.S. sites and weren’t as successful at tailoring content to target specific pockets of voters. The Democrats and the Republicans are also much better at delivering key party messages, said Mr. Langshur. While Canadian parties do have their platforms online, “the goal is to get that information out quickly.”

“It’s great to have a party platform, but few people look at them. You’ve got to give them the Cliffs Notes.”

Canadians have also failed to crack the online fundraising nut, whereas U.S. campaigns have been wildly successful—so far, John Kerry has raised $44 million.

While Canadian websites make online contributions a straightforward process, they aren’t couched within calls to action or key issues that potential donors are passionate about, nor do they link to the overall campaign agenda. Instead, it’s a separate blank form.

Among the Canadian sites, the Bloc Quebecois fared the best, said Mr. Langshur. Although it did not excel in any one area, it had a broad range of content, targeted specific demographic groups, and contained a higher than average level of interactivity by offering a blog and the ability for visitors to comment on party issues, news releases or other information.
The Conservative site, he said, had one of the strongest designs with issues and other core campaign messaging highlighted. But it didn’t target specific audiences and made only moderate use of e-mail to connect with voters and supporters.

The Liberal site, he said, was unfocused, doubling both as the election and the main party website. This dual purpose could make it difficult for visitors to orient themselves.

The NDP distinguished itself with its e-campaigner feature, but because it was launched midway through the election its impact has been severely reduced.

The Green party site was one of the few to provide extensive links and information on its party leadership.

Federal Election 2004 - Decision Canada
© The Ottawa Citizen 2004

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