While television ads still dominate campaign communications, candidates are increasingly using new technology tools such as Web sites, blogs and automated calling to reach voters.
In the 2006 election cycle, 18 percent of Americans got most of their political information from the Internet, more than double the number from the previous mid-term elections in 2002. As for voters under 36 years old, 35 percent said they relied on the Internet more than any other media for campaign information in 2006 [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. In politics, image-shaping and media management are the main jobs of campaign communications
These communication tools helps candidates craft an image, which is everything in American politics, according to Stanford University’s Political Communications Lab, which studies how public opinion and political behavior are related. Political campaigns aren’t won through mastery of the issues, but through skillful management of the media.
The most powerful medium for campaign communications continues to be television. In the 2006 mid-term elections, 69 percent of Americans got the majority of their political information by watching TV [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. Politicians continue to spend millions of dollars on political TV ads to bolster their image or attack their opponents' credibility. Political ads are not only effective, but also have the potential to become their own news stories, garnering free coverage from broadcast and print journalists [source: Stanford University].
The rise of the Internet as a powerful medium for campaign communications points to the increasing political importance of the Net Generation. The Net Generation is a term for voters between the ages of 18 and 27 who grew up with e-mail accounts, instant messaging buddies, cell phones and Google. Their world is seeped in technology, and they expect the same from campaign communications.
In a 2007 survey, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that a growing percentage of Americans are no longer satisfied with passively gathering political information online. Instead, they want to use Web 2.0 tools -- blogs, video and social networks -- to seek out diverse opinions, create their own political content and share it with others [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project].
And, politicians are listening. They’re not just hiring press secretaries to handle campaign communications, but also directors of online communication and directors of e-strategy [source: the Online NewsHour].
In the first quarter of 2007 alone, presidential hopefuls as a group spent $2.5 million on Internet services, including staff and technology [source: the Online NewsHour]. That’s nothing compared with TV -- candidates are expected to spend $2 billion to $3 billion in the 2008 elections on TV ads [source: msnbc]. But, the return on investment with the Internet is impressive. With $2.5 million in Internet spending, candidates have already earned $25 million to $30 million in online fund raising [source: the Online NewsHour].
Web conferencing and teleconferencing have also become popular high-tech tools for communicating “personally” with voters. Online town halls and tele-town halls offer a candidate the opportunity to talk directly to targeted voter demographics (like specific counties in an early primary state) and answer their questions live via phone, e-mail or online message boards.
In this HowStuffWorks article, we’ll explore advances in campaign communications technology. We’ll start with campaign Web sites and features like blogs, social networks, video and electronic notifications. Then we’ll discuss how “robo-calling” and teleconferencing technology work in campaigns.
Campaign Web Sites
In the mid-term congressional elections of 2002, only 55 percent of candidates had a campaign Web site. By the 2006 mid-term elections, that number was up to 97 percent [source: The Bivings Group]. What politicians are realizing is that the Internet isn't a stand-alone medium, but one through which all other media is collected, created and shared [source: Online NewsHour]. The Internet can be a television set, a movie theater, a radio station, a telephone, a newspaper, a town hall, a fundraiser and a powerful recruiting center.
What we’ve seen over the past three election cycles -- 2004, 2006, and now 2008 -- is a rapid expansion of the features and functionality offered by campaign Web sites. In a 2006 report called The Internet's Role in Political Campaigns, The Bivings Group identified three “tiers” of campaign Web sites offering different levels of technical sophistication:
Tier One: Web sites that offer the basic campaign information, such as candidate biography, contact information, donations and volunteer sign-up. In 2006, 80 to 94 percent of campaign Web sites offered Tier One features.
Tier Two: Web sites also offering blogs, video, audio, RSS feeds and downloads. Between 14 and 55 percent of campaign Web sites qualified as Tier Two in 2006.
Tier Three: Campaign sites with social networking capabilities (such as “house parties,” team building or personal fund-raising campaigns), an “en español” option and podcasts. These made up 3 to 12 percent of campaign Web sites in 2006.
[source: The Bivings Group]
The Bivings Group also notes that challengers were much more prone to use Tier Two and Tier Three technology than incumbents, no matter their party affiliation. For example, 32 percent of challengers used blogs, compared to only 10 percent of incumbents [source: The Bivings Group]. Tier Two and Three technologies also were much more likely to be used in hotly contested or “key” races [source: The Bivings Group].
Now let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular Web 2.0 features of campaign Web sites: blogs, social networks, video and electronic notifications.
The popularity of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign blog was the breakout Internet story of the 2004 elections. Dean’s blog was credited with taking a young, relatively unknown candidate and propelling him to the top of the Democratic contenders (until he was derailed, in part by an online video clip).
By the 2006 mid-term elections, 23 percent of campaign Web sites included blogs written by the candidate or staff members [source: ']The Bivings Group]. In that same year, 14 million Americans said they actively read political and media blogs, and two million were writing about politics on their own blogs [source: Pew Internet & American Life Study].
However, not all campaign blogs are created equal. The goal of a campaign blog should be for the candidate to establish a relationship with the reader or voter [source: The Bivings Group]. Blogs are a way to share personal opinions and feelings with the world. For many political candidates (and their lawyers, in particular), that’s extremely dangerous territory. That’s why so many campaign blogs are nothing more than recycled press releases in blog form [source: The Bivings Group].
Campaign blogs don’t have to be written by the candidate (most are far too busy, or in many cases, too old to understand the medium), say analysts from The Bivings Group, but they need to be written by a passionate, articulate staff member who's in touch with the hot issues flying around the blogosphere [source: The Bivings Group]. One way to stay plugged in is to establish relationships with other political bloggers. And, the more blogger “friends” you have, the easier it is to get the word out about your candidate.
One interesting feature of many 2008 presidential campaign sites is that they allow individual voters to create and maintain personal blogs on the candidate’s Web site. This is part of the overall push for candidate Web sites to mimic the features and functionality of popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. By registering and becoming a member of a campaign Web site, you can create a profile page on which you can host your own blog.
Now let’s talk more about campaign communications and social networking.
Campaigning and Other Web Sites
Online social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Hi5, Twitter and hundreds of others allow users to create a personal profile and then connect with old and new friends. Once connected to these friends, they can form groups based on shared interests; they can share photos, videos and blogs; and they can send each other messages.
Online social networking began as a Net Generation-only obsession, but has expanded exponentially in both popularity and the diversity of users. MySpace, for instance, used to be mostly for teens and young musicians. By August 2006, however, more than 40 percent of MySpace users were between 35 and 54 years old.
The vast majority of 2008 presidential candidates have profiles on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, flickr, del.icio.us and more. Their profile pages are gathering spaces for supporters (and detractors). Voters post public messages of encouragement or comment on the issues. They respond to and comment on each other’s messages, starting long threads of conversations that can last for days.
With online social networks, campaign communications is no longer a one-way street from candidate to voter. In Web 2.0 lingo, peer-to-peer or voter-to-voter communication is equally important [source: eyeon08.com]. These sites are also a powerful way for the candidates to learn what the voters are talking about and respond quickly.
For example, the Mitt Romney presidential campaign has hired a team of young campaign workers to monitor social networking sites for potentially harmful rumors or misinformation. When a video appeared on YouTube of Romney expressing his support for abortion rights 13 years ago, his campaign immediately posted its own video explaining how Romney’s stance on the issue has evolved over the years [source: Online NewsHour].
In a rush to capitalize on the popularity of online social networking, many 2008 presidential candidates have also launched online social networks on their individual campaign Web sites. Voters can register with a campaign site and become a member. As a member, you have access to social networking and communications tools such as:
- Posting your own blog
- Joining or creating groups with other users
- Finding and contacting other supporters in your area
- Finding or hosting events in your area
- Starting your own fund-raising campaign
- Posting photos and videos
In addition, the two major U.S. political parties have launched their own social networks, the Democrats’ PartyBuilder and the Republicans’ MyGOP. Both sites offer features and functionality similar to those of the individual candidate sites.
On the next page, we'll talk about other Web site campaign technology.
Campaigning as a Multimedia Experience
Besides blogging, candidates are also using online videos and electronic notifications to reach voters.
More than half of U.S. households are expected to have high-speed, broadband Internet access by the end of 2007 [source: cnetnews.com]. Significant broadband penetration has turned the Web into a truly multimedia experience. As of February 2007, 21 million Americans say they've watched a political video clip online [source: Pew Internet & American Life Study].
All the 2008 presidential candidate Web sites include video clips of some kind, and many have regularly updated online “TV channels” devoted to behind-the-scenes footage of the candidate. The goal, once again, is to make the candidate feel accessible to the voter and to allow the candidate to broadcast his message without going through conventional media channels.
Two of the larger social networking sites have partnered with cable TV broadcasters to find new interactive ways to use online video. CNN and YouTube have sponsored a debate series (first Democrats, then Republicans) in which YouTube members can submit video questions that will be answered by the candidates. The debates were broadcast live on CNN and streamed live online. MySpace and MTV will host similar candidate dialogues that will be streamed live on MySpaceTV, as well as broadcast on MTV. Home viewers can submit questions through instant messaging, e-mail or text messaging.
Several presidential candidates have also held online town halls on their Web sites. In these events, the candidate might be in an actual town hall location like Ames, Iowa, but also answering questions via e-mail or online message board posts. The event is streamed live on the candidate’s Web site and archived for future viewing.
When you visit the campaign Web sites of the 2008 presidential candidates, many of them first direct you to a splash page where you’re asked to enter your e-mail address. You can bypass this step by clicking on a link (usually much smaller) saying “Go directly to Candidate.com.”
Clearly, the candidates and their communications directors believe that e-mail is an important campaign communications tool. By voluntarily entering your e-mail address into one of these candidate sites, you agree to receive newsletters, announcements, alerts, calls for donations and other messages from the campaign staff.
E-mail is a type of electronic notification. Electronic notifications are any type of automated communications sent by phone, e-mail, text message or fax.
A new feature of several campaign Web sites is the ability to sign up to receive text messages via cell phone from the campaign staff of your favorite candidate. The mobile section of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign site allows you to sign up for specific text messages based on key issues such as health, education, Iraq, jobs and reform. Obama’s site also allows you to download wallpaper for your cell phone and even Obama ringtones.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton University found that people who received a text message the day before an election were 4 to 5 percent more likely to vote [source: New Voters Project]. Text messages are also incredibly cheap when compared with other “Get Out the Vote” techniques like door-to-door canvassing or direct mail. According to the report, text messaging costs $1.56 per vote generated compared with $67 for direct mail.
Now let’s move away from Web site campaign communications to talk about how the telephone is being used to get the word out to voters.
Robo-Calling and Campaigns
The 2006 mid-term elections saw a large increase in the use of a campaign communications technique called "robo-calling." Robo-calling is a form of mass notification that uses a computer to call thousands of voters with a pre-recorded phone message. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 63 percent of registered voters received an automated phone call with a political message in the final stages of the 2006 elections.
Robo-calls are made using an autodialing service or software. Here's how this works:
- Create a calling list by manually typing in names or importing them from another document.
- Record a message using the microphone on a computer, a telephone or text-to-speech software.
- Send the message to all the people on your call list. The software can even leave a different message if it encounters an answering machine [source: voicent communications].
An additional 24 percent of voters in 2006 received phone calls from real human beings urging them to vote for a particular candidate. These phone calls were likely made using a predictive dialing system. Predictive dialing software automatically dials outbound phone numbers and only passes the call to a live agent if a call is successfully answered by a person. If the computer encounters an answering machine or a busy signal, it doesn't pass along the call [source: TMCnet].
The computer is smart enough to estimate how many calls can be handled by the number of live agents, how many calls will successfully go through and how long each person will remain on the line [source: TMCnet]. Telemarketers typically use predictive dialers. The telltale pause that accompanies most telemarketing calls is due to the time required for the computer to recognize a human voice and connect the call to an agent.
The 2006 elections also saw the first use of tele-town hall meetings. Tele-town halls are a combination of robo-calling and teleconferencing technologies. Here's how tele-town halls work:
- A computer simultaneously calls tens of thousands of voters in a particular area.
- The call contains a pre-recorded message by the candidate asking the voter to participate in a live teleconference with the candidate.
- If the voter wants to participate, he presses "1" on his telephone keypad.
- The participating voter is then given further instructions. If he wants to ask a question, he can press another key and be added to the line of people who want to ask a question. Using special teleconferencing software, the people running the teleconference can open the voter's phone line when it's his turn to ask a question.
- Otherwise, the voter listens to the candidate talk live about his platform and answer questions from other participants.
- Using teleconferencing software, the candidate's staff can survey participants with questions they can answer by using their keypads.
Future of Campaign Communications Technology
As candidates adapt to the prominence of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, they must also address the growing presence of alternate online realities like Second Life [source: Second Life].
Democrat Mike Gravel was the first 2008 presidential candidate to establish an official campaign headquarters in Second Life [source: Metaversed]. John Edwards built his headquarters some months later, but fell victim to virtual vandals.
More and more, the future of campaign communications is moving away from official spokespeople, paid advertising and credentialed journalists into the hands of ordinary citizens empowered by extraordinary technology. According to Micah Sifry of the Personal Democracy Forum, voter-generated content and grassroots online initiatives are going to be the “the wild card” of the 2008 elections [source: TechNewsWorld].
For more information about campaign communications technology and related topics, check out the links on the next page.