Eight Simple Rules for Online Politics

Updated January, 2011

Download Online Politics 101

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 your ultimate goals 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 pressure 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. Showing you’re right matters more than knowing you’re right

The internet is filled with people who think they’re right; for a taste, look at the comments on a popular political story on any news website. But unless you just want to vent your spleen in public, or you happen to have a cable news channel handy in your pocket, certainty alone isn’t enough — most of us in the political space will need to convince other people to join in on the fun.

Basically, in most cases politics comes down to persuasion. So unless you can resort to force (“vote for this bill OR ELSE”), you’ll need to find ways to connect with people and bring them around. Sometimes that will involve appeals to logic or to facts (data presented in visual form can be a powerful persuasive tool), but at least as often you’ll use emotion to sway opinions. Another consideration: sometimes you’ll need to persuade a mass audience, but in many cases your target may be a single legislator, regulator or opinion leader. Fortunately, the internet can deliver all of these kinds of messages to just about any target — your mission is to match the available tools with your particular needs and resources.

4. Look at every channel, but go where your audience is

Once you’ve identified the audiences your message needs to reach, get out in front of them. If you’re trying to reach opinion leaders, journalists and other “network influentials”, you’re likely to focus on connecting via Twitter or (if possible) back-channel email discussions. But if you’re aiming directly at the general public, you’re likely to end up using Facebook outreach, YouTube videos and Google advertising to catch people where they spend their time online. If dedicated activists are your chosen targets, you may need to look at political blogs and Twitter, since these are havens for the political class — likewise for other niche audiences, for instance targeting the “mommy blogosphere” to reach women who are parents. The trick is to figure out whom you’re trying to reach and where they gather, and then to use those channels to persuade and recruit them.

5. Content is key

All of the sweet-sounding talk in the world probably won’t do you a bit of good in the long run if what you’re selling is resting on nothing more substantial than air. Unfortunately, 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.

6. 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.

7. The Tools Don’t Care Who Uses Them

At various times over the past few years, one side or another has seemed to dominate some part of their online world. In the U.S., Libertarian/conservative websites outnumbered their liberal counterparts noticeably in the late ’90s, but Democrats rallied online in the Bush years via blogs, email lists and online fundraising, culminating in the Obama campaign’s masterful and comprehensive use of the digital tools available in 2008. Never fear, the Right roared back, with Sarah Palin turning Facebook into her own personal megaphone and Republicans of all stripes flocking to Twitter in 2009-2010. The tools are open to anyone with the time and/or resources to use them, and any side that thinks it has a monopoly on internet activism is likely to be disabused of that notion sooner than it would like. This is a democratic medium, and I mean “democratic” with a small “d”.

8. Selling an idea (or a candidate) is very much like selling soap.

How much is does online politics have in common with selling a product or service? The short answer: a lot, in that they’re at least close enough that two can borrow each other’s tactics. Pushing a candidate or a cause can be 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 we’ll talk about either began in the commercial world or are equally applicable to selling ideas and selling, you know, stuff, and many of the resources brought up in this guide and on Epolitics.com originated 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.

Next: Choosing the Right Tools

Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles