It’s the time of year when we’re barraged with forecasts for 2011 (and 2012 in the political world). The one prediction we can share with confidence is that the technology folks will continue to deliver innovations that change the way we communicate with our constituents, supporters and donors. Since this column is about making online and social networking technology accessible to campaigns at all levels, we’ll start off the year by looking at some key considerations for online success that are applicable regardless of your organization’s size or scope.
The Internet has become key to pretty much every campaign. We’ve gone from “it must be true because I read it on the Internet” to “it’s not real unless I can find it on the Internet.” What’s changing is how people interact with the online world on an everyday basis. Your website may still be your home base, but more and more people expect information to come to them, rather than having to seek it out at multiple websites. When thinking about your online plans, it’s not just about building a website and then adding some social media accounts. You need to create a complete “social web presence” where all the pieces reinforce each other—and then actively push these connections.
If you were online a decade ago, you may remember the America Online that provided a filtered version of the Internet and controlled the largest share of the online audience. At 500 million users and growing, Facebook can lay claim to connecting the majority of eyeballs on the Internet today. And in many respects, Facebook has recreated AOL’s “walled garden” approach, but with more connections (and no disks in the mail). Facebook’s own “wall” has morphed into the “news stream,” which delivers observations, news, video and other links posted by each person’s network of friends. If you’re not actively putting your information into this stream and encouraging your supporters to share it, you’re missing from America’s national water-cooler conversation.
Likewise, search engines are incorporating references to an individual’s social connections when providing results. When Google displays sites your friends have viewed that relate to your search, the likelihood that you’ll follow those links increases significantly. Search engine optimization (SEO) has been a shifting target for years, but there’s no escaping the basics—if your website is not mapped and registered with the major search engines, it’s invisible to the large audience that uses a search engine as the jumping-off point for everything it does online. Our recommendation to keep it active
applies here too—if you’re not updating your online content in an SEO-friendly manner (with permalinks and relevant tags), you’ll fall further and further down the search results list.
Looking at online campaigns from the audience perspective, the use of smart phones continues to grow. This means that complex websites designed for supersized monitors are slow to load, hard to navigate and generally frustrating to your viewers. We don’t suggest you make your website look like a simplistic child’s toy with big buttons and large type in a single column—just that you should look at your website on these small-screen devices and ask yourself if people can easily interact with them.
So what should you be spending your money on? The good news is that social web technology keeps getting better and cheaper—not to mention that some of the most important components, such as Facebook and Twitter, are free. This doesn’t mean you should be spending less money online (more about that in a future column). However,
if you realize that fewer people are showing up to hang out exclusively at your website and are viewing your content through the filters of social networks, you don’t need to spend as much money up front on high-concept design and complex features. Keep your startup costs low and devote your budget to creating content (commentary, pictures, video, games, etc.) and pushing it out into your networks. It’s not unlike your events—folks are coming for the connections and message, not the finger food and decorations.
Steve Pearson is president of CivicNEXT (www.civicnext.com), which delivers practical online communications and social networking solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a Campaigns & Elections 2010 Rising Star, is the founder of ProjectVirginia.com, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter.