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Political Web Sites: Strategic Assets or Virtual Lawn Signs?

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A Hillwatch E-Services Online Campaign Benchmark Report

June 2004

In the current 2004 electoral cycle, Canadian Web Sites are behind the curve relative to their US counterparts. They fail to reach out and engage their supporters and voters with the same effort and commitment.

The use of the Internet for political campaigning has evolved from a trendy novelty in the mid-90’s to an accepted and integral element of a campaign managers’ tool set.  With each electoral cycle the web envelope has been pushed as new and more sophisticated approaches and tools emerge.   From online brochures of just a few years ago, campaign web sites now support and extend efforts to reach and engage voters, are used to test market campaign messages, and even to map supporters to electoral districts.  The level of investment we see today directly reflects both the success of these initiatives, as well as a clear understanding that the value of the medium to the campaign process will only continue to grow.

With the Canadian election in full flight, now is the ideal time to benchmark how, and how well, Canadian political parties are making use the online medium. This report presents the results of a Hillwatch e-Impact Benchmark performed between June 2 and 12th on the web sites of five Canadian political parties engaged in the federal election (the Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Bloc Quebecois, and Green Parties).  In addition, it benchmarks the web sites of the John Kerry and George Bush in the United States for comparative purposes.

This analysis is based on the use of Hillwatch's proprietary web site benchmarking methodology, which checks for the presence or absence of online best practice indicators.  This approach yields rigorous comparative analysis based on objective and quantifiable criteria.

Research Summary:

There are clear and substantive differences in the strategic uses and tactical implementations of the political web sites studied.  Key differences include:

US political websites are core strategic assets of the campaign. 

Their meticulously designed interfaces, carefully tailored and targeted content, and highly evolved campaign tools underscore the central role these sites have in raising money, organizing the grassroots, targeting core communities, boosting supporters and communicating core messages.

Canadian sites reflect a top down command-and-control campaign model. 

The information flow is largely unidirectional - from the party to the public/supporters.  The NDP was the lone standout in this area with its e-campaigner site, although this was very late, limited and relied largely on party headquarters providing the initial push to get supporters active in engaging their peers.  In contrast, US sites use a more decentralized model where local chapters can access tools, materials and messages and work more independently.

Canadian sites do not enable party grassroots to ”self serve”.

They offer no substantive means through which party grassroots can organize, mobilize, share practices, download key campaign tools, and coordinate outreach.  Canadian sites resemble electronic lawn signs – they inform but don’t engage.  They rarely take the next step of providing clear opportunities and avenues for engagement.

Canadian sites have yet to crack the online fundraising nut.

While the US campaigns have been very successful at raising significant funds from supporters, Canadian sites still lag significantly in this key area.    Although the websites make online contributions a straightforward process, they present blank forms that do not make linkages to the overall campaign agenda and are absent of compelling messaging; they are not couched within other calls to action or with issues that potential donors may feel passionate about.

US sites are content rich, hosting more than twice the content of their Canadian counterparts. 

This substantial content difference reflects a higher degree of tailoring to various target audiences and a greater degree of sophistication in the area of online contributions.  This is significant because the finely tailored content aligned by community interest ensures that there are more opportunities for the platform to resonate with pockets of voters.

Money matters. 

The JohnKerry.com and GeorgeWBush.com sites are multi-million dollar investments in both technology and labour.  They reflect the reality of the “permanent campaign” having been in high gear for quite some time now.  They are kinetic, always evolving, not afraid to try new ideas and driven by a relentless focus on their core objective – to win the election. We recognize that it is not practicable to expect similar levels of investment by Canadian political parties in their online campaigns, but more focus would help. Remarkably, some of the most effective tools and approaches in the US are low cost but have still not been implemented by Canadian political sites.  In a closely contested Canadian federal election, our political parties have been overlooking an opportunity to make themselves more competitive.

For additional detail, please download the full report which outlines the results in considerable detail with graphs clearly outlining differences between sites and highlighting the performance of individual party sites.
Download the full PDF Report

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