5 lessons learned from election candidate websites

I have spent considerable amount of time looking at the websites of municipal election candidates in Kitchener. By definition these campaigns must be cost-effective yet strive to make a big impact and so I’ve identified some lessons for other organizations and small businesses.

1. Have a website

A sizable and growing portion of the population naturally goes online to learn about election candidates. People want information and candidates have trouble directly reaching every voter so I was surprised that there were still some that did not have a website. In one case, I understood it was supposed to be the sign of a fiscally responsible campaign. But since a website or other online presence can be created for free, there are no financial reasons not to have one.

2. Make sure that people have access to the information they need

If you have a website, the two things that people most want to know is about the candidate’s qualifications and the platform that they want to implement. In general, candidate’s websites included their qualifications but were too frequently short on ideas and in at least one case they were absent.  Black and white positions are not necessary. Seeing shades of grey or having positions that take into account the big picture are important to many engaged voters. If you don’t give people enough information, you’re giving them a reason to look somewhere else. And if your position changes as may happen, make sure you update your website and explain why.

3. Use your website to build relationships

One of the better websites I saw was one where it was integrated with his blog. He used them to talk about issues (not merely campaign updates such as today I knocked on doors on Weber Street) and replied to people who left comments. He won by a single vote! I’m sure the relationships built online contributed to giving him an edge by enhancing the strength of his support especially with new supporters. Other candidates tried to take advantage of relationship building opportunities online but often did themselves more harm than good. A Facebook page won’t help if it’s pretty much a static brochure or used to push out information. A Twitter feed only helps if it shows that you’re “on” Twitter rather than just have a Twitter account with infrequent updates that shows that you don’t get how to use this tool to connect with people.

4. Make your website easy to find and navigate

Some candidates had websites but they were hard to find. Make sure that major media outlets have your website URL and that your team gets you listed everywhere people are likely to be seeking information. And be sure you have website at the other end (one unbelievably did not), that it is up (one was offline for many days) and that it works in more than just Internet Explorer (one would not load in Chrome for me). Blogging is a great way to organically seed your site with key search terms and have a site be dynamic.

When people get there, make it as easy as possible for them to find the information they find important from the main page. Obvious but not always well executed.

5. Quality affects perception

While having a website is important, it’s not enough. As soon as a candidate’s website appeared in my browser, it told me something about them. An amateurish website reflected poorly as it indicated a lack of emphasis on the importance of presenting yourself online, an underfunded campaign, difficulty in assembling a team with the needed skill set or a combination. The result was an impression that the candidate was short of what it takes to be a strong, credible choice. A website that has a quality design and layout immediately sends the message that the candidate has his/her act together, cares about what voters think of them and wants to assist their online search for information. Often the best websites were the work of professionals but there were also several that were done by skilled candidates or volunteers.

A website can make or break a candidate

While there are other ways for voters to get the information they need to make a decision, they don’t always take advantage of them. Candidates with the best websites understood that how they communicate online could help them win votes. That doesn’t mean that a good website was enough, content is critically important and voters must like what they read and what videos and photos say.

What does your website (or lack of one) say about you?

Would it get your target audience’s vote? Does it help inspire active support for your cause, get someone to attend your show or patronize your business?

Election brochures tell a lot about the candidate too

At one point, I thought I might dedicate a post to election brochures too. Instead, I’ll deal with them quickly here. In general, the observations I made in my post about election signs and the lessons I’ve shared here apply also to brochures. I’ll some it up by saying “Quality Counts.”  Candidates with a combination of strong content and effective design benefited. Falling short on one or both at worst cost candidates votes and at best was a missed opportunity to gain votes.

But I’m not saying that a polished, professional brochure is a must. You must understand your audience and their expectations. A glossy brochure with a high level of design can work against a candidate if it makes it harder for voters to relate to them or if it raises concerns about how they spend money. Sometimes it’s better to be seen to be doing more with less–even if it means spending more such as by using a matte, environmentally-friendly paper.

Meet voters thirst for information

Voters want information but they like it to come to them. They don’t like having to work for it. I frequently heard complaints that few if any candidates had visited or even given them pamphlets. Some people declared their vote would go to the candidate who paid attention to them. The lesson here is that you must be proactive and find ways to reach your audience because waiting for them to come to you is not a recipe for success.