Watching the Watchers: Looking at the Unprecedented Scrutiny of Presidential Campaign Websites

Over the past few days, I’ve been storing up links to various reviews of presidential websites and online strategies, planning to prepare a comprehensive wrap-up of the criticism so far. The interesting thing is, I’ve become more intrigued by the stories themselves than by their subjects: I’m fascinated by the implications of the level of coverage we’re seeing so far. The presidential candidates can’t hardly make a move online without it being dragged out in public and dissected, often in painful detail.

I’m not talking about the Macaca moments, blogger controversies or the unpropitious arrival of various kinds of unflattering documents, but about serious analysis of intentional campaign tools and strategies, such as websites, social networking outreach, blogs and social media. We’ve seen this sort of criticism of policy and political decisions coming from pundits and bloggers for years, but now a large enough group of online political professionals is writing in public that the degree and level of discussion of online strategy is astonishing this far in advance of anything resembling an election.

Besides coverage by traditional media outlets, some of which is excellent (see for example this Mercury-News overview piece on the double-edged nature of online organizing or Saturday’s social networking article in the Post), we also have specialist political sites along with political reporters writing supplemental pieces online. But the real change has been the emergence of sites that are focusing specifically (and often solely) on how candidates are using the Internet. Several new ones have come online in past few weeks alone: TechPresident, Blog the Campaign in 08 and PrezVid. And existing blogs such as Political Gastronomica and Blog P.I. have been weighing in ever since the first ’08 exploratory committee sites were launched, with the folks at the Bivings Report seeming to build a second career as online campaign critics (they’re very good at aggregating the reviews of others as well).

What does this mean for the campaign process itself? Well, first off, there’ll be no shortage of free advice (McCain’s site is grim and scary! Hillary’s is stodgy!), with plenty of people happy to make suggestions for improvements. Second, with so many people looking for something to write about (how many times can you review the same sites?), small errors and omissions may be picked up quickly and publicized, not always to the campaigns’ pleasure.

Smart campaign web staffs, though, will read these critiques carefully and take every opportunity to pick up ideas and correct mistakes. As e-commerce providers have been finding for years, small hiccups in online transactions (in political terms, joining social networking groups or making donations) can really cut conversion rates, and these new online critics are turning out to be an industrious bunch of bug-catchers.

More broadly, campaigns at ALL levels should benefit from this kind of detailed discussion — remember, even candidates for dogcatcher can now have video-heavy websites and MySpace presences, and they’ll be taking tips from the national campaigns. Focusing solely on the presidential campaigns is a bit myopic, and I’m sure most of these sites will branch out as more campaigns (House, Senate, governorships, etc.) heat up. But in the meantime, we can all learn as the presidential campaigns squirm under the magnifying glass.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles