Politics learns from e-business

Politicians are doing their best to co-opt Web techniques pioneered by e-commerce. As a result, political web sites are moving beyond brochure ware to take more advantage of the web.

In the U.S., this shift is being documented by the Library of Congress. It recently sponsored research to look at how politicians are using the Internet in their campaigns.

University researchers have released preliminary results of an analysis of campaign Web sites from the 2002 elections. The analysis was presented at the opening of the Election 2002 Web Archive at the Library of Congress on March 4th.

University of Washington's Dr. Kirsten Foot and the State University of New York Institute of Technology's Dr. Steven Schneider analyzed candidate Web sites from all 505 contests for U.S. House, Senate and Governorships. The analysis will be available on the project's Web site, http://politicalweb.info, in connection with the Library's opening of the Archive next month.

"Candidates are moving beyond the six second sound bite to the megabyte. More and more, candidates appear to recognize the Web's strategic advantage in offering unlimited time and space for them to define themselves and their policy positions", said Foot.

According to the researches, these are five Web site characteristics of the 2002 mid-term elections:

1. Moving from sound bite to megabyte.
2. Enabling mobilization.
3. Facilitating online donations.
4. Going beyond "brochure-ware" to "Web-ware".
5. Linking to other political Web sites.

Top five key ways the Web is reshaping campaigns:

Moving from sound bite to megabyte

Just as companies use their Web sites more and more as repositories of their public information, politicians are using their sites to document their positions. More than 80 percent of candidates used their Web sites to document the candidate's position on at least one issue. Many went into depth with supporting information to explain and back their positions, some illustrating or using other media for support. This reflects realities seen in the corporate world; sound bites may work in a 30-second commercial, but Web surfers expect to be able to find deep information.

Enabling mobilization

While business sites have moved from informing customers to motivating them to buy, political sites are also encouraging visitors to act. More than 20 percent of the sites provided ways that citizens could mobilize others to support the candidate. Options included systems for writing Letters to the Editor, e-cards, and downloadable posters and signs.

Facilitating online donations

Trying to capitalize on surfers interest, three-quarters of the Senate candidate web sites, and more than half of House and Governor candidate sites, provided ways to donate to political campaigns.

Going beyond "brochure-ware" to "Web-ware"

The 2002 elections were the first time that most sites took advantage of the Web's unique capabilities. More than 80 percent of candidate Web sites included one of these features: online campaign donations, campaign e-mail list sign-up, campaign volunteer sign-up, sending links to others, or downloadable campaign materials.

Linking to other political Web sites

It's been said that links are the currency of the Internet. The 2002 election sites demonstrated that politicians are beginning to understand Web currency as well as traditional currency. More than 85% of the candidate Web sites have a link to either a press, political party, government or advocacy group site.

Linking is being used two main ways. First, it is used to build a web of credibility. According to Web credibility research, the top way to improve your credibility online is to "make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site." Candidates used links to press reports and other Web sites that support their positions or actions.

Linking is also being used to make it easy for citizens to find out more information about hot topics, and to provide easy ways for voters to act on their interest.

Newton's Third Law of Internet politics

Newton's Third Law states that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." It looks like what's true for physics may be true for politics on the Web.

As politicians become more savvy about the Web, the Web is increasingly being used in savvy ways to understand politicians and their actions. For example, the Web is now being used to facilitate activism, such as Arriana Huffington's semi-satirical site that connects SUV gas-guzzlers with terrorism. It's also being used to hold politicians accountable. OpenSecrets.org, for example, provides information on money in politics, including who gave and who receives how much money.

The Web may even make it easier to track and understand how well politicians are following through with their promises. The Election 2002 Web Archive provides a record of what candidates said in order to get elected. This provides an easily accessible and searchable account of candidate's positions and statements.

As we move towards 2004 elections in the U.S., the technologies pioneered in e-commerce are likely to play an important role in the ways candidates promote themselves, and how we understand them.

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