A couple of weeks ago I was granted access to post on twitter’s new micro-blogging network “Medium“http://www.medium.com. In true ctoverdrive fashion I wrote about municipal web sites and because I’m still partial to my own little site, I’m reposting it here for safe keeping. Please enjoy.
I’ve said this numerous times, but the world of political campaign web site design is a niche market that seems to be years behind current trends. And while I’ve raged on the issues in other “personal posts”: personal posts, one of the biggest underlying issues with political web design is that there tends to be an incredible lack of focus on who the audience of these sites really are. And even though it’s an off year in most political circles, there are still a handful of newly minted municipal campaign web sites that are missing the mark.
In general, there are two ways of approaching a campaign site design, either build and design for your candidate or build and design for the voters. In an altruistic world, every campaign web site would be built with only the voters in mind, but if we’re being honest most campaign sites are built to appease the candidate (or campaign manager) and voters second. It’s a difficult situation for any designer to straddle, but it’s a key failing of many campaigns. On the one hand every candidate knows that they need voters to win and they need a web site to get their message out, but on the other hand for those running for political office, even if it is from a position of public service, it is an ego boost. For many candidates this may be the first time they have ever had an online presence or their very own web site, so it becomes difficult for the candidate to simply let someone else control their online image. And in a profession where appeasing the client is always the first goal, it becomes incredibly easy to succumb to a candidate’s personal tastes or opinions, rather than crafting a web site geared to voters.
So how do you know if your campaign site is tailored toward a candidate rather than voters? Here are a couple of obvious tell-tale signs.
But how do gradients, too many polished photos and links to photo galleries rather than action items indicate that a site isn’t geared towards voters? Well, let me explain.
See voters, similar to candidates and political consultants, live incredibly busy lives. But for the most part your average voter isn’t living and breathing the every day activities of a campaign race — they don’t your candidate as intimately as you do. Instead voters, especially during municipal and local campaigns, will tend to rely solely on first impressions and gut instincts to judge potential candidates when they are making a voting decision. Voters want simplicity, clean messaging, and something to relate to and a campaign’s web site is the easiest way to connect with voters on all three levels.
So, if you answered yes to more than one of these issues that I outlined at the very beginning of the article, it’s time to reevaluate your site. My suggestion is to grab an impartial voter (your in-laws are a great resource for this), sit’em down for 10 minutes, ask them to walk through your site and get them to tell you their gut impressions of the candidate based solely on the web site.
Once again the Canadian Political world has been confronted with the always comical debate surrounding Political Ads. The recent spat over the infamous In Over His Head Justin Trudeau spots and the nitty gritty provincial battle in British Columbia have resurrected this timeless argument. And yes, if you asked most Canadians they would tell you with no uncertainty that they despise this level of political dialogue, while secretly not wanting to admit that these tactics can work like a charm. But low and behold, there is a new form of Political Attacks Ads that has quietly surfaced that is even more pathetic and lame.
That of course is the world of the dreadful Political Attack Web Site.
Yes, we are all familiar with the more polished older brother TV version and there is so much discussion revolving around the topic that I won’t get into too much detail rehashing those talking points. But to reinforce my point about the uselessness of Political Attack Web sites I do have to explain why the TV ads work so well.
The television attack ads mainly work because of two basic concepts. The first is pretty simple – TV ads in general are something that is forced upon a viewer rather than something one seeks out. As any hockey fan of the past couple of weeks can attest too, The Conservative Party of Canada have flooded the NHL Playoffs with the infamous Justin commercials. And yes, make no mistake that this is completely calculated and designed to hammer home a highly tested message to a captive audience of about a million plus Canadians every night. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, no matter how annoying or pathetic a political attack ad is, the average Canadian won’t bother changing the channel to ignore it. Truth be told most people would rather sit through the 30 second spot rather than chance missing one of Glenn Healy’s insane ramblings. So in regards to investment, they are about as effective as it gets for one’s political campaign dollars.
Second, as much as people hate the concept, attack ads do an effective job of laying down the ground work for a subconscious theme against one’s opponent. Mr. Ignatiff, Mr. Dion, Mr. Mulclair and more recently British Columbia’s Adrian Dix can attest to how much a theme, whether correct or not, repeated over and over again through TV ads can slowly degrade the casual voter’s viewpoint of a candidate.
With those two key attributes in mind lets look at the main weaknesses of the political attack web site.
First, regardless of what social media experts and middle aged entrepreneurs want you to believe, a web site is something that you can’t force people to see. No matter how many times a site is retweeted, posted to Facebook or you print out a QR Code, a web site will only draw interest from a user who wants to read that information. So attracting a non-partisan viewer is going to be nearly impossible, well, unless you pretend it’s a cute cat site. Don’t get me wrong these site do get hits, but if we’re being honest with ourselves they usually come from partisan party faithful or the opposition looking to see what’s being said about their candidate or party. The average casual voter isn’t going to be interested in seeking out this information unless it is of interest to their daily lives.
Second and this is a key one, the average person does not enjoy reading negative web sites. I know, a shocking concept. But ask yourself this: when was the last time you bookmarked a negative political attack web site or subscribed to the RSS feed? Think about it for a second. Probably never. And why would you? How does a negative political web site benefit the average viewer’s daily routine? If we were to look at the return rate of a Political Attack web site, I’m confident the return visitor rates would be embarrassingly low. These sites are not developed to foster an active community or even contain dynamic content, most are built as one off standalone sites to either compliment or initiate a conversation… and most can’t even achieve these simple goals.
Lastly, most of the sites are so crudely designed and developed that they probably do more harm than good. As viewers, it’s well known that our opinions are largely based on first impressions. So imagine taking a negative theme and spin it into a positive experience in the three to four seconds that a viewer takes to lay judgement on a web site. It is an impossible task. Take this classic shadow cabinet NDP website or better yet the accompanying “In over his head” web site. With their big scary fonts and over the top photoshop skillz are you convinced of the evil nature of their targets or are you turned off by how much time and effort was put into such a negative campaign? If you were already a partisan hardliner you’ll probably agree with the content and are already lovin’ it like McDonalds, but for anyone the effects are minimum at best.
Okay, now that I’ve spent a good chunk of time ripping into the uselessness of these sites, the question becomes can Political Attack web sites serve a better purpose? Better yet, is there an effective variation that is actually a positive and engaging experience? The answer to that is yes.
A micro site for a Political Party or Candidate which focuses on a positive concept or is able to tell an engaging story is really an effective campaign tool, but the key element is that it has to be a positive experience rather than a negative one. I’ve used this example numerous times in blog posts, but the Kathleen Wynne Way Forward micro site from the 2013 Ontario Leadership campaign is a great example of this. (It has since transitioned into a full web site)
The amount of work involved in creating a site similar to the handful that Wynne’s team have produced, are about equal to or less than the previously mentioned web sites, but the viewer experiences are literally night and day. One bombards you with the dirt and negativity of politics, while the other instills a sense of excitement, progressiveness and change. And of the two sets of examples, Wynne’s collection of sites are far more likely to leave a positive sentiment with the user.
So you may be asking, why even bring this up?
Simple. With the advent of robust and easy to use tools such as WordPress, Tumblr or even NationBuilder, it has become incredibly easy for anyone to build a web site – especially a political one. We know this as a fact, but just because it’s easy to build a gaudy attack site doesn’t mean that you should.
Yes, politics is a dirty game, but there becomes a point when the minor benefits of negativity outweigh the positives. With the upcoming civic elections in Alberta just around the corner the temptation to draw attention to a candidate by investing in one of these feeble sites is there, but hopefully I’ve shown that there are better ways. If recent events prove anything it’s that the general patience for negativity in politics is diminishing within Canada. Voters are looking to see the positive side of our political leaders. So in a round about way, my advise to aspiring candidates and campaigns is to ignore the Political Attack web sites and do something different, unique and creative.
With a slate of municipal elections scheduled for late October, upstart candidates and sitting council members across Alberta are gearing up for an intense fall campaign season. With that comes the task of putting together a campaign team, beginning the process of raising funds and also crafting a campaign brand and marketing material. But one of the most critical elements of a strong campaign is establishing an online presence with a fully functional web site.
If you’re an active voter like I am, you’ve probably come across a spectrum of political campaign web sites over the past four years. You have also probably noticed that only about a handful of these site are clearly well done – majority are just absolute disasters doing more harm than good. In a previous blog post, I outlined my opinions on the state of political web design in Canada. But now with an election six months away, I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is by detailing a handful of key elements for building a great campaign web site.
Before we get into the meat of these elements, it’s important to understand the role of the candidate’s web site in the modern campaign era. Unless you understand how the typical voter will interact with your site, it’ll be impossible to grasp what characteristics are key in the process.
Before 2010, a candidate’s web site typically acted as the single online activity hub of a campaign. Since then we’ve obviously seen a shift in user interaction patterns, where there is now an even balance between social media activity and the campaign web site. A candidate’s web site is no longer the only element online, it’s now a key cog in three or four active and moving pieces.
Think of it this way, a candidates social media activity and print material acts as a first introduction to the average voter. The entire goal should be to get the candidate’s name in the mind’s of the voter. If a voter’s attention is caught by a tweet about a candidate, notices a friends shared Facebook post, stumbles across a Pinterest photo or drives past a yard sign, that will be their first introduction to the candidate. At which point, if the first introduction is a successful one, the voter will most likely go to the candidate’s official web site to learn more. At which point the candidate will be making their first and most lasting impression on a potential voter and you better hope that their web site hits all the right spots.
Now here is the most important change in the average user activity cycle with a campaign web site. In years past, the average user if impressed by the candidate would probably sign-up for an RSS feed, or bookmark the web site to revisit in a week or a couple weeks. But with the rise of social media, smart phones and our collective diminishing attention spans for visiting web sites on a regular basis, the average voter is going to look over the candidates site once, get the information they need and make a decision to either commit to subscribing to the candidate’s social media activities or to disregard the candidate. From there the social media elements of the campaign will take over and either continue to impress the average voter — potentially bringing them back to the web site for more information as the campaign rolls on or it’ll start to turn the voter away.
In this aspect a candidate’s web site may have lost a bit of its long term importance, but has also increased its value as the biggest element in making a lasting impression on the average voter.
So how does one create a great first impression with a strong campaign web site? Here are some key points.
First and foremost, a campaign has to use the right tools to create an impressionable web site. From my experience building a candidate web site with Drupal or Joomla is overall kill. While very functional tools for larger sites, a Drupal and Joomla site is going to be far too complex for the average campaign team to maintain and it’s going to show in the design aesthetic or with stale content. So while this isn’t real news to anyone, my advice is to go with WordPress or Nationbuilder. Most designers and developers won’t be familiar with Nationbuilder (as a caveat I have been working to become a Nationbuilder architect and it is a great up and coming tool) so WordPress will probably be the default tool for most this cycle.
Now just because you have a WordPress web site it doesn’t mean you’ve completed your work. The biggest benefit of WordPress from a campaign perspective is it’s a very easy to use and universal tool with so many great plug-ins. WordPress is a tool that everyone and their dog can claim to build a Wordpress site, but a badly crafted WordPress theme will stick out like a sore thumb. Any site that is a ‘hack’ of an already popular theme will show fairly quickly. It’ll look cheap and inexpensive and that will reflect poorly on the candidate. In my experience, this is probably the most common mistake that a campaign team will make concerning their web site.
So use WordPress, but invest in a proper design. Create something that’s clean, intuitive, unique and memorable.
This is going to sound incredibly obvious, but a candidate’s face has to be front and centre on their web site.
You’d be shocked at how many campaigns are already committing this sin for the upcoming election. As I mentioned before, a campaign web site acts as the biggest first impression for the average voter, so put your candidate front and centre on the landing page. Make them the focal point of the user’s eye when they arrive.
Now before everyone goes running off to purchase fancy head shots, there is a caveat with this piece of advise — the candidates photo has to be personable.
Don’t photoshop their face and super impose it on a stock image of a robotic skyline. That is so 2009 that it hurts. Do something unique with your candidate. Be creative. Show the personality and charm of your candidate. It could be as simple as showcasing them in the area, ward they represent or in front of a well known landmark of the district they are running in. But overall the images of the candidate have to be personable to people.
Look at it this way, who would you rather vote for? A candidate in a buttoned up shirt and tie sprawled across the perfect backdrop or the candidate that looks like you could run into them on your way to the grocery store or coffee shop of your local neighbourhood?
Nine times out of ten, the average voter is going to take the candidate that looks like they could have a coffee with.
As mentioned in this post, the role of the campaign web site has evolved. While it is still the most critical element for a first impression, it’s also not necessarily where all the online interaction of your candidate with citizens will occur — that area is regulated to the battle fields of Twitter and the timelines of Facebook.
So with that in mind, it is wise to make your candidate’s social media accounts easy to find. Make them stand out on the site. Make them super easy for voters to follow or like. Now like my previous tips of advice there is a caveat to this, don’t just go plug-in crazy with the social media accounts. They have to be easy to find, but it also doesn’t have to look as though the candidate’s web site is a dogs breakfast of the latest tools. Like everything in a campaign it has to be well thought out and intuitive, so invest in good design and simple aesthetic for the web site. Incorporate the various social media tools, but do it in a manner that isn’t an eye sore.
The points I’ve outlined above are fairly straight forward and are based on common sense. Before embarking on a campaign, make sure you understand the role of your web site in the campaign, understand the proper tools for your web site, create a relatable design and aesthetic that represents your candidate and create an online presence that is easy for the average voter to connect with. But what all these points boil down to is ensuring that there is proper investment in a campaign web site.
From my experience, the biggest mistake a candidate can make is to not to properly invest in all elements of their campaign. I have been lucky to work on a handful of great campaigns, with teams that have understood the importance of this concept, but in my research and general observations, many campaign teams in Alberta are already forgetting this simple concept. It’s almost humorous as to how many campaigns will invest large portions of their budget in printed material and online advertising to redirect potential voters to a sub-par web site for more information. With the advent of open source technology and the growing industry of web design, in my opinion there really is no excuse for candidates to have a poorly designed web site in this day and age.
For whatever reason this will be my first ever post on the Open Data movement on the old c.t.overdrive. To be honest I have no idea why it’s taken me so long to jot down some ideas on this topic, as it has been something that I’ve been actively interested in and championing for a couple of years. But with International Open Data Day in the books and my new(ish) hometown launching an Open Data App contest, I figured it was time to jot down some thoughts.
Alright, so for those of you not familiar with the concept, Open Data is a pretty simple idea:
Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. (via. Wikipedia)
Essentially, what Open Data boils down to is that every level of government (Federal, Provincial, and Municipal) collects vast amounts of data on a yearly basis. This data, while useful to different elements of government for various strategic reasons, for the most part has been kept away from citizens. But in recent years, as society have started to shift towards the new paradigm of open technology and open source collaboration there has been a massive push from citizens to have governments release this data to the general public.
The goal of the Open Data movement is to work with and push governments at all levels to make this immense amount of information available to the public in various data sets. The idea being that with this data available to the public it can be leveraged by hobbyists, entrepreneurs or tech innovators to create unique tools or solution to help better the lives of everyday citizens – something that most governments don’t have the resources to do. If you want one to picture it in simpler terms, it’s sort of a data nerd’s Field of Dreams philosophy – a mantra of if you release it, they will come concept.
Now The Open Data movement really gained attention in early 2010s, but it first came to my attention from the writings and conversations I had with local Calgary blogger DJ Kelly. In 2009 and 2010, Kelly was one of the first people in Calgary to push for Open Data to be embraced by city council. At the time Open Data experiments in Washington D.C., Vancouver and New York were just breaking ground and starting to open up the world to the possibilities.
Since learning about the concept of Open Data, I’ve had the opportunity to see the diverse levels of acceptance in two Canadian cities, one American city and to also witness the growth of the concept from the periphery. It’s something I’ve been increasingly more interested in different elements of concept start to mature.
From what I can see the Open Data movement in my old hometown has slowly begun to pick-up steam over the past few months. There is a strong and vibrant push from city hall to get a better understanding of the demands of the public for these data sets. And while it doesn’t have as much of a history in Calgary, it does appear to be worming it’s way into the underbelly of the start-up development community. In recent months (and years), start-ups like Fastcab, iHunter App, MediumRare (+!5 mapping Data) and RandomType (Parking Data) leverage a variety of different publicly available data sets to help create unique tools for citizens, but also improve their every day lives. And with the city putting more resources into the concept, I’m pretty confident that community will continue to grow.
My new home of Ottawa actually has a pretty diverse, impressive and thriving open data community. Upon arriving in the city this past fall I came across the uber active Open Data Ottawa collective – a fantastic group of passionate developers working with the city of Ottawa to encourage open data in the city and region. But the beauty of the community is that it has a strong buy-in from the local municipal government. The City of Ottawa itself is openly active in the community, which just launched it’s second annual Apps4Ottawa contest and has actively supported Open Data Ottawa with their annual Open data hackathon this past December. I don’t want to get into comparisons, but it’s fascinating to see the level of commitment and passion from the city (and citizens). It’s an exciting community and I’m looking forward to lending a hand in the future.
So I know I’m sort of rambling, but the open data movement is slowly growing in Canada. It seams as though each region of the country is in different stages of infancy and because of which some strong communities are popping up. Some regions are clearly ahead of others (such as Ottawa and Vancouver), while some are slowly catching up (Calgary and Saskatoon as examples). But in most of the cases, the Open Data movement is slowly growing. In my opinion, the more that governments start to work with citizens and communities, the more likely we’re all going to start reaping the rewards of the Open Data movement.
And if you’re curious as to why I’m interest in this community. It’s actually pretty simple. For me, my interest in the Open Data movement is less about development of specific citizen tools, but the amazing side effect benefits of this movement. For me Open Data is all about the growth of community driven collaboration and the opportunity it opens up for entrepreneurs and hobbyists – it’s that element that gets me excited about Open Data.
So if you’re curious about the Open Data Movement, feel free to get involved – find your local organization, play around with data sets or help organize a local Open Data group. I’ve include a few informative links below to get you exploring:
I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but when talking about the advancements in campaign technology and design one cannot underestimate how much Barack Obama’s campaign team has brought to the industry. Whether it was the revolutionary techniques and concise planning employed by the campaign team in 2008 or the impressive data-driven objectives set out by the 2012 re-election team. Either way the ground work laid out by The Obama campaign machines in both elections has ushered in a new era within the political world and has essentially set the standard for the importance of a candidate’s online presence.
And since the end of November those of us who are engaged in this niche market have been lapping up the revealing blog posts from core members of Obama’s 2012 election team. Whether it’s discussing the lean start-up techniques implemented by the tech team or the advanced User data and A/B testing utilized to improve conversion rates or even reminiscing about the design philosophy behind the Obama brand through 2008’s quintessential Designing Obama there is a wealth of valuable information available at our finger tips. (Side note: Designing Obama is a must read for anyone looking to get in the game) So after digesting many of these posts and articles, I keep coming back to this question, why is Canadian political campaign web design and development so far behind our southern counterparts?
Now, I understand that there are some glaring differences between our two systems and one can’t start questioning this industry without acknowledging this. Yes, the American standardized election dates makes it easier for long term planning and budgeting in comparison to the fluid nature of our Parliamentary System – which sometimes needs to react to election calls on a moment’s notice. And one cannot discount the massive difference in population base and the unlimited fundraising advantages with American Campaigns in comparison to our system. But those elements alone do not explain why good design and good development is not front and center in a Canadian Political Team’s mind.
All the tools for Canadian campaigns to build a strong intuitive online presence for their candidates are there. Inexpensive content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, BuddyPress and even for larger campaigns – Drupal – have been around for years and are widely utilized by many professionals. There are also dozens of very sharp campaign examples from our southern counterparts for us to pluck ideas from and they’re all quite well known – many of them have turned into purchasable templates that can be easily customized. In addition, Canada has a wealth of design, development and user experience talent in each major city. So really at this point there is no excuse for why Canadian political campaigns sites are still so horrible in 2013. If you want an example of what’s going on in this industry, one only has to look at some of the candidate sites for the Ontario Liberal Leadership race. A good majority of these sites are either unappealing or “bland”:http://www.votesousa.ca/. Many of them almost seams like an after thought to the campaign and add little excitement to their candidate’s profile. Now compare them to the stunning and fluid design of Kathleen Wynne’s campaign site www.kathleenwynne.ca, which just shines in comparison to her competition.
Now, in defense of the some of these campaigns, they’re not the only ones out there. I could have easily used other campaign examples over the past two years (Alberta’s 2012 Provincial Election, The Recent Federal By-Elections or municipal elections in Saskatoon and Ottawa over the past year), but the stark difference between a strong majority of Ontario Liberal Leadership candidates and Kathleen’s team shows a massive disparity in the industry. On the one hand you have a collection of sites that look and feel as though they have been hammered together in haste, while Wynne’s site acts and feels like a well throughout focal point of campaign information and activity. And I’m not even considering the parallax microsite The Way Forward which is just miles ahead of anything the other candidates are bringing to the table. Wynne’s site engages users from the get go, gives off the aura of a modern and forward thinking candidate and draws users to get involved. While the other campaign sites rarely invoke an emotion or instill confidence in the candidate, most end up taking away from the candidate’s true attributes and qualifications with small but glaring errors.
Again, I don’t mean to harp on these hard working teams, as there are dozens of examples across many recent Canadian campaigns that could easily prove my point. But what is the issue in Canadian campaign design? If we understand that money and campaign finances are a hindrance, but at the same time understand that there are many free tools out there and a wealth of available talent, what is the problem? Why are the majority of these sites so bad?
I’ll throw this out there and I’m open to counter points, but in my opinion, the problem with the state of web design in Canadian politics actually ties back to the recent success of Obama’s team. Whenever Obama’s success is discussed on a higher level the conversation ultimately focuses on the social media myth of that team’s success. While there is no question that Obama broke major ground with his use of social media, what is easily forgotten, even with the wealth of information out there, is that Obama’s online presence included the entire package. The iconic Obama imagery and the campaign slogans created a symmetry across all the campaigns networks. The web site was designed with users in mind and interwoven with an aura of modernization. All these elements were designed together to form Obama’s online presence. Yes, social media was a factor, but social media was only a tool to reach out to voters and supporters, ultimately it drove them back toward the main Obama web site to donate, interact, organize and learn about Obama. In most Canadian campaigns, I’m not seeing that sort of full package concept or planning, which is what I believe is wrong with the industry. There needs to be less focus on the myth of social media and more on the overall online package – ideas that Obama’s team have written about since the 2012 campaign ended.