There may still be another 18 months or so before the next presidential election, but it’s already become very clear that Web 2.0 technologies have changed the terrain of the political campaign process.
MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and “Second Life” have all become a standard part of this new campaign world, as candidates reach out to voters in the places where they spend ever-increasing amounts of time. Meanwhile, the candidates’ own Web sites have become a critical piece of their communication, fund-raising and community-building efforts.
This election’s candidates have made different choices in designing their Web sites, and are already enjoying varying degrees of success. Working on the assumption that the present sometimes predicts the future, the question is: Which one is performing best?
The New Competitive Edge
“We believe the 2008 presidential campaign will be waged increasingly online, and the candidate who consistently delivers the highest-quality Web experience will definitely have a competitive edge as the race for the White House heats up,” said Matt Poepsel, vice president of performance strategies at Gomez.
“The Web may be relatively new to the candidates, but not to the Web-savvy voters,” Poepsel told the E-Commerce Times. “People have certain expectations.”
Nearly half of the participants in a nationwide survey said they plan to visit at least one of the 2008 presidential candidates’ Web sites during the campaign, Gomez found. Within that group, nearly half said they are current or potential online donors.
However, in order for those donations to happen, respondents made it clear the candidate Web sites had to work well. Sixty-two percent said they’d abandon the online donation process after two unsuccessful attempts, and 67 percent said they would tell other people if the donation process didn’t work well.
Of the 43 percent of survey respondents who had already visited or who planned to visit candidate Web sites, 58 percent said they believe there will be a correlation between the candidate with the best-performing Web site and the ultimate winner of the presidential race.
“The race for online donations is still wide open, and there is opportunity galore to capture the hearts, minds and purse strings of undecided voters,” Poepsel said. “That’s strong motivation for the presidential candidates to ensure the optimum performance of their Web sites and a quality Web experience for their supporters.”
Yet the candidate Web sites vary widely in the experience they deliver for visitors. For example, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are currently neck-and-neck as far as online fund-raising success goes, Clinton’s Web site offers the quickest online donation speed — just over 3 seconds — whereas Obama’s is slowest, at more than 33 seconds, according to a Gomez analysis.
Another analysis found slightly different results. In a 24-hour snapshot of how campaign Web sites appeared to viewers across 25 states and 10 of the top Internet service providers last week, Keynote Systems found that Dennis Kucinich’s page was fastest, taking less than a second to load, while Mitt Romney’s was slowest, taking an average of about 8 seconds. John McCain’s site was not much better than Romney’s, Keynote found, taking an average of more than 6 seconds.
Speed vs. Content
Those numbers are not surprising when you look at the size of the candidates’ home pages, Shawn White, Keynote’s director of external operations, told the E-Commerce Times. Kucinich’s page is a mere 100 KB, Keynote found, while Romney’s and McCain’s pages — which, not coincidentally, are rich in graphics and video–are roughly 1 MB and 2 MB bytes, respectively.
“It’s a page glut — voters get more information, but they have to wait longer,” White said. “We’re a fast-food nation, and users can get frustrated.”
Events can take their toll on speed too. For example, following the candidate debates last week, Keynote saw a significant drop in loading speed at several of the candidates’ sites.
Most notably, Sam Brownback’s site dropped from 4.5 seconds to load before the debates to a full 10 seconds the next morning, suggesting that Brownback’s debate performance increased interest in his site.
“Let’s assume Brownback was successful in getting his message across,” White said. “Now visitors to his site are experiencing slow performance. That could contribute to a negative impression of the candidate as well as his site.”
Downtime is another online phenomenon that can make the candidates and their sites look bad. “You may have a very fast Web site, but if it’s not available, that’s actually worse,” White noted.
A standard goal is 99.999 percent availability, White said, but Keynote’s analysis found considerable variability there too. Tommy Thompson’s site, for instance, had an average availability of only 98 percent following the debates, with numbers as low as 91 percent in some areas.
Visitors to Obama’s site, on the other hand, enjoyed 100 percent availability in nearly all regions, Keynote found.
Fast performance is always important to Web site visitors, but it may be particularly critical at this stage of the campaign process, when voters are still deciding on their candidate choices.
“Voters with an affinity for a candidate are usually willing to wait a little longer, but in this early stage of the campaign, a lot of that affinity hasn’t been created yet,” White noted. “First impressions are very important in the early stages of political campaigning.”
The speed of the online donation process could also affect the cost of a candidate’s campaign. One of the attractions of online donation is that it involves fewer processing costs for the candidate, but slow speeds and frustrated voters could send those costs back up.
“If I wanted to give an online donation to a candidate but it took forever, I’ll either choose not to give then or I’ll just mail it, which has higher associated costs for the candidate,” White said. “Online retailers lose significant amounts of money as a result of slow performance, and it could also have a negative impact on the cost of running a campaign.”
Important as speed may be, though, there remains a glaring contradiction in some of these early numbers: Obama’s online donation process takes 10 times longer than Clinton’s does, yet the two candidates have both taken in a roughly equivalent sum in online donations. So, one can’t help but wonder, does speed really make that big a difference in the end?
“One of the things that suggests is, can you imagine how many people would donate if Obama’s page were faster?” Alan Rosenblatt, executive director at the Internet Advocacy Center, told the E-Commerce Times.
“For every click it takes to go from ‘ask to action'” — that is, from the online request to the place where the user can fulfill that request — “we expect to lose 50 percent of the audience,” Rosenblatt explained. “There is a very rapid drop off.”
Still About the Candidate
Obama’s online donation success “flies in the face of what we would expect,” Rosenblatt said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the vision of the candidate. The more the candidate offers a vision that excites people, the longer people are willing to wait online.”
So, while higher-performance sites are more effective in general, there may be ways for a powerful candidate to do well regardless.
“Politics is still about the candidate,” Rosenblatt concluded. “Technology will grease the wheels, but it’s not everything.”