When Epolitics.com launched in 2006, the site included an “Online Politics 101”, a collection of how-to articles I later gathered into an ebook and updated until 2011. As that guide evolved into the current “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections”, the original Five Simple Rules below got absorbed into the bigger structure. Let’s revisit them today as they were originally published — after 13 years, I think you’ll find them quite relevant. Top photo: “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold”, by Charles DeMuth.
Five Simple Rules for Online Politics
1. Think about the ends before you think about the means
I know it sounds obvious to say that you should think about where you’re going before you decide how to get there, but I can’t tell you how many times a client has come to me and said, “we want to hire you to build X,” when a few minutes’ reflection about the goals of their campaign shows that they really need Y and perhaps a dash of Z for flavor.
Maybe X is all they’ve ever heard of doing, or perhaps it’s something their executive director’s cousin is really keen on, or maybe another organization did and it looked cool. But is it what they really need?
BEFORE you start any communications project, online or off, ALWAYS stop to think about what your ultimate goal is and who your audience is — your goals and your audience should drive your tactics. Who are you trying to reach? What will you be asking them to do? Are there intermediate targets that need to be reached first? A campaign designed to motivate college students to vote will probably be structured very differently than a campaign designed to encourage senior citizens to put pressure on their state legislators about Medicaid long-term care coverage. Your online campaign, whether for advocacy or office, is much more likely to succeed if you’ve thought about these basic questions FIRST. Never be afraid to try something, but please please please THINK before you act.
2. Brilliance almost always takes second place to persistence
If you really want to succeed, be relentless — stab-in-the-dark campaigns drive me crazy. “We launched a website!” Woo hoo!!!! So did everyone else. “We sent out a press release!” Great, that was one of approximately five quadrillion press releases that went out that day. Most campaigns that succeed do so because they try many different tactics and never let up the pressure. With very rare exceptions, successful political campaigns hit their points over and over from as many different angles and in as many different venues as possible. I can’t stress this point too much — if you want to fail, half-ass it. Your opponents will applaud you.
3. Integrate, integrate, integrate.
Integration: more than good social policy, more than the better half of calculus, it’s also an absolutely vital strategy for communications campaigns. All of the pieces of your online campaign should work together, and they should also integrate with your offline advocacy.
Yes, sending emails to Congress might help influence policy, but they work a lot better if your lobbyist (or your volunteer advocate) walks in to the member’s office and delivers the same messages personally and printed out on paper. And they’ll get even more notice if they’re accompanied by calls from crucial constituents (i.e., donors) and if the issue is mentioned in an op-ed column in the legislator’s main district newspaper. Online advocacy should integrate with offline grassroots organizing should coordinate with press strategy should mesh with direct lobbying — they ALL work better when they’re done together.
Don’t forget the details. Did that ad you ran in the New York Times mention your URL? If so, you’d better have something obvious on your site front page that ties into the ad or you’re missing an opportunity to build on your offline advocacy.
If you pick up one idea from this website, let this be it — integrate or die.
4. Content is key
All of the promotion in the world won’t do you a bit of good if you don’t have anything compelling to say. I’ve built more websites (and posted more press releases and “fact” sheets) than I’d like to remember that were essentially puffery — they really didn’t say a damn thing.
When you’re starting a campaign, make sure that your content is going to be worth the effort — reward those poor suffering readers and activists with something substantive. I don’t mean that all of your pieces should sound like a policy paper, but I do mean that you should have something to say or something to show. Otherwise, you’ll be amazed at how fast your “email updates” will end up in the spam folder.
And may I put in a word for good writing? If you’re trying to persuade people, please write like a human being rather than one of our friends and future masters, the robots. This is essential for bloggers of course, but it matters for anyone putting content up on the web. Over the years, besides grammatical errors that have brought me to tears of mingled sadness and laughter, I’ve seen sites that were so badly written that they were essentially incomprehensible. If people can’t read what you write, you’re not going to be persuading them of much.
5. Is selling an idea (or a candidate) like selling soap? Yep.
How much is does online politics have in common with selling products or services? The short answer: they’re the same thing, or at least close enough that two can borrow each other’s tactics. Pushing a candidate or a cause is dangerously close to selling consumer goods, a statement that’s been true at least since the advent of democracy (if Joe McGinniss’s Selling of the President 1968 doesn’t get the point across, look up my distinguished ancestor’s campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”).
Many of the techniques I describe either began in the commercial world or are equally applicable to selling ideas and selling you know, stuff, and many of the resources we’ll talk about on e.politics originate in product marketing, not political advocacy.
One final note
Ignoring these rules will help your opponents spank you in public with your pants quite dramatically down, except when it won’t — nothing is an absolute in this business. Knowing when to break the rules is half the fun.