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Still Virtually Lawn Signs: Benchmarking Canadian Political Web Sites During the 2006 Election

 

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Our previous report Political Web Sites: Strategic Assets or Virtual Lawn Signs? found the web sites of the major Canadian political parties were little more than virtual lawn signs – they informed but did not engage users. This was in stark contrast to the 2004 American election web sites that provided extensive opportunities for politically engaged visitors to become active and involved.

For this election, we updated our benchmarks of the Canadian political party web sites to evaluate their evolution from 18 months ago. In addition, for comparative purposes, we included web site benchmarks of the 2004 US Presidential candidates and benchmarks from the spring 2005 election in Britain (UK). We included the UK party sites to provide Parliamentary system-based peers.

Conclusions:

Canadian party web sites have added interactive features such as blogs, podcasts and Real Simple Syndication (RSS), and are using email (and their sites) to more aggressively disseminate their messages and rebut those of their opponents. However, despite improved interactivity, visitors to Canadian election web sites are considered largely as passive information consumers. No Canadian web sites seized the opportunity to tap the wisdom of the crowd, leverage the social networks of visitors, or help issue-focused voters reach and connect to one another.

Canadian political parties clearly examined the online experiences of political parties elsewhere, adapting new practices to their current campaigns. In many cases, it is the right idea but often a case of poor execution – particularly in the use of e-mail for outreach, online donations, messaging and usability. A certain level of sophistication is missing in the implementation of the parties online strategies.

Canadian electoral web sites deserve credit for significant improvements between the current and previous election. However, they continue to be very much like lawn signs – they still inform, but don’t engage.

Key findings:

Benchmarking the election web sites of the major political parties in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States reveals substantive differences in their strategic focus and tactical execution.

  • Canadian political web sites lag their US and UK counterparts. Canadian party web sites demonstrate a more strategic use of the internet relative to their efforts in the 2004 election. Nevertheless, their online strategies are not as ambitious as their UK or US counterparts. This is particularly underscored in the way the UK and US make use of the channel to deliver highly targeted, regionally specific content, support grassroots initiatives, and raise funds.
  • The US still leads in using the web to engage and empower the grassroots. Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns provided online tools to allow supporters to create and connect with their engaged peers (e.g. Democratic “Meet-ups” and Republican “House Parties for the President”) with minimal party involvement. No such tools are available on Canadian or UK party web sites. This adherence to a more centralized model (managed and coordinated at the national or riding levels) may to some extent reflect the differences between the Federal vs. the Parliamentary electoral systems.
  • Canadian sites improved but still lag in online fundraising practices. US and some UK sites directly link fundraising appeals to measurable (and realizable) goals, and actively encourage micro-donations. Despite well documented best practices in this area, the online contribution/donation sections of Canadian party web sites fail to make linkages to each campaign agenda, discourage micro-donations and have weak messaging that is rarely compelling. One party’s donation process even failed to send an acknowledgement/thank you note!
  • Content richness: USA is number 1; the UK number 2; and Canada number 3. Despite improvements from the 2004 election, Canadian election web sites have less content than their UK counterparts, and substantially less than those in the US. In detail we noted the following key differences:
    • Community specific content: Other than the youth, party web sites are silent with respect to identifying or speaking to any other community (although the Liberals do have a section devoted to Aboriginals). In contrast, both the US and some UK sites specifically addressed the interests of various demographics, communities and/or regions.
    • Region specific content: In a country of regions like Canada, it is surprising to see so little content that is regionally focused, i.e. what the policy means to voters in the area they live. In contrast, the UK Labour Party enabled electors in the Midlands, Scotland, or Central London to drill down and see the specific actions that the government had taken to improve public services or schools or hospitals in their areas.
    • Team politics: The US highlighted extensively both halves of each ticket (as well as their spouses). As opposition parties vying to demonstrate their bench strength, in the UK the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all highlighted key members of (the shadow) Cabinet. Their policy pronouncements and participation in the campaign were highlighted in words and pictures. Cabinet Government is supposed to be a team sport but that is not apparent when viewing Canadian party sites.

Hillwatch’s benchmarking methodology checks for the presence or absence of best practices. These best-practices are drawn from a mix of published research, third -party publications and internal research and are given a weighted score relative to their importance. This approach yields rigorous comparative analysis based on objective and quantifiable criteria. Hillwatch has completed hundreds of online benchmarks for clients across a range of sectors, government departments, and non-profit organizations.


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