Tips for Candidates: Online

So, you’re a first time candidate (or working for one), whose online communication plan involves raising enough money to hire the big dog firm. Trouble is, your  race isn’t “targeted”, you aren’t independently wealthy, the clock is ticking and you need to get up and running fast.

There is no magic bullet, but below are a few DIY tips to get your online campaign going. With the exception of item 4 (photography), this package can be assembled in a couple of business days for less than $500. Once you’re elected, the whole kit can be used for constituency outreach as long as you disable any fundraising links and pages during the Legislative session.

For those of you running for re-election, even without primary opposition, it’s time to freshen up and get back out there. Hopefully, this will help get you motivated, or at least give you a punch list.

The 10 basic components of an online campaign package:

1] Domain name
2] Campaign brand
3] Message/copy
4] Photography
5] Website
6] Email sign-up and blast (aka email client)
7] Online contribution processing
8] Social media
9] Integration
10] VoteBuilder

1] Domain name

First things first. Reserve your domain name with Godaddy.com or NetworkSolutions.com. Purchase a .com or .org domain and avoid obscure .tv, .us or .net domains. If your name isn’t available, choose a memorable variation by adding “elect” before or “forga”, “4ga”, “forgeorgia”, “for65″ or such after your name. Keep the domain name as short as possible. If your first or last name is difficult to spell, consider dropping, ie: tomforgeorgia, davisfor65, electMargaret, and so on. If you aren’t sure which variation to choose, it’s OK to purchase more than one domain and decide later. All extra domains can be pointed at the primary domain once your website is up. Include at least one email address for your primary domain (this may be added later if necessary). Just for kicks, check to see if your opponent’s name has been registered. If not, grab it and don’t say I told you to. Spend another few bucks and opt for private registration on that one. Before placing your domain name order, be sure to read item 5 about websites. This might change which registrar you use.

2] Campaign brand

It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be legible. If you can’t afford professional design services, or even those of a design student, choose a medium to bold weight typeface, serif or sans-serif, and use it consistently throughout the campaign. Resist the urge to tack on stars, ribbons, airplanes, swoops, boots, hats, fruit or other graphic elements. A strong typeface, cleanly presented, can look great. A few examples of successful “text only” brands from this cycle are: Joe Martin (typeface is Rockwell Bold), Jason Carter (typeface is Gotham Bold) and RJ Hadley.

Different character combinations work better in some typefaces than others. To figure out which typeface works best for your name, start by typing your name and pasting repeatedly in a long row in MS Word. Assign different typefaces for each line, focusing on those with Bold or Heavy in the title. Which do you prefer? And don’t say “Wedding Script”. For the sake of legibility and taste, avoid fussy, decorative or overly stylized typefaces. Setting your name in All Caps will convey strength, Big and Small Caps have a nostalgic appeal, Italic type conveys motion, Serif type is more formal, Sans-serif type is friendlier and is the most legible.

After you’ve landed on the best typeface for your name, the office you are seeking can be set in a smaller compatible or contrasting typeface. Or you can keep the whole thing uniform. It’s your call.

3] Message/copy

The best place to start on a DIY message is with one simple question – why are you running? If you can’t answer in two sentences or less, you don’t have a message.

For lack of a better device, the five Ws can serve as a basic framework for DIY campaign messaging: Who, What, When, Where and Why. Who are you? What are you running for? When is the election/fundraiser/volunteer event? Where are you running? And why? Craft one or two tight paragraphs for each “W” and make sure your materials include at least one point from all five, depending on the application.

If you’re eventually fortunate enough to hire a media consultant or communication director, they’ll help craft your message. Until then, do no harm and don’t box them or yourself in with irreversible claims or wacky campaign promises. If professional services aren’t an option, start slow and work your way into it. See what generates the most response from your stump speech and tweak accordingly. Pay attention to questions voters ask. All you have to do is listen to learn what matters most.

Above all, keep your message concise and consistent. Don’t change message to appeal to different constituencies, but instead address topics of interest to that group. Remember every cellphone is also a video camera.

4] Photography

Primary photography: This is one area where DIY just won’t do. We live in a visual culture and voters will base their opinion of you, to some extent, on the quality of images you present. Professional photography is a critical component of all campaign materials, but it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. For example, local Atlanta photographer Aharon Hill shoots amazing photos of babies and weddings, but as an accomplished portrait photographer she also shoots stunning images of candidates. For $400 you get a 2 hour location shoot and 35-45 of the best images you’ll ever have of yourself. For a few dollars more, she’ll shoot the whole family. I don’t know her, but she did a wonderful job for a candidate friend. She delivered the best photography I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with for a candidate.

So, book Aharon or find a reasonably priced portrait photography (who shoots on location) in your area. No glamor shots! One good photo session, on a nice day, in several locations with two wardrobe changes will serve you throughout the campaign. I promise you will never regret this expense.

Secondary photography: Image gathering during the campaign (with any digital camera), is a great way to offer proof of performance to potential voters and donors. Voters generally enjoy meeting candidates in person, but the reality is you can’t meet everyone. That’s where photos come in.  Show supporters you’re out in the community: at the church pic-nic, visiting the senior center, talking with business owners, and speaking at your local party meeting. The best photos can be uploaded to your photostream on flickr.com, to your facebook album, and/or used in emails and on your website to break up big blocks of text.

With the possible exceptions of hunting, fishing or flying, voters don’t want or need to see you engaged in hobbies. They want you at work or on the campaign trail. No golfing shots. No bar or dark restaurant shots (untag yourself in facebook if necessary). No silly hats or costumes. Try to keep it bright, warm, accessible and dignified. Many candidates do this well, but Beth Farokhi is an accomplished photostreamer.

5] Website

Form: If you don’t have a better option, or just need a placeholder until your webmaster unveils the magnum opus, go to GoDaddy.com or NetworkSolutions.com and purchase a DIY website for $4.99 per month. You can choose from hundreds of templates, but keep it simple and businesslike, staying away from wacky colors and typefaces. Instant websites are only available for domains registered with that vendor.

The Network Solutions product is called Smallvolution and includes a domain name, an event calendar, google maps and some other stuff. GoDaddy offers Website Tonight that includes an email account, facebook ads, google ad credits and a few other things. Visually they’re both about the same. Both include a rudimentary Content Management System (CMS), which allows you to update your own website from any computer. For tiny campaigns, CMS is a must have.

Note: If you have average technical skills and want a more professional looking website, you might try installing WordPress. There are hundreds of tutorial videos on YouTube, but here is one explaining how to install WordPress on your server. And if all you have is some good photography and a few links, you might try slightly unorthodox vendors such as wix.com, flavors.me or squarespace.com to create a quick and cool website.

Function: Your campaign website is basically the repository of all relevant links, text and photos of your campaign. At minimum, it should contain: contact form or campaign email address, campaign phone number, link to your contribution/fundraising page and (if possible) a downloadable PDF form with return address for those who still prefer to contribute by mail, an email sign-up form or box, all your social media links, welcome message, the five “W”s (listed in item 4), at least one flattering photo, your campaign brand and voting information for your district.

It must contain the following text at the bottom of all website pages: Paid for and approved by [full campaign committee name]. This line must also be added to every piece of print material and any email distributed by your campaign. As of 2008, this is no longer the law in Georgia for State Level candidates or below. However, Democrats should consider it good form to include this information on their materials. For Federal (Congressional) candidates, this disclosure statement is still required by law.

Finally, once your website is up and running, announce the URL through your social media channels and be sure to contact your state Democratic party to request the link be added to their candidate page.

6] Email sign-up and blast (aka email client)

To communicate electronically with stakeholders, and build and manage your subscriber lists there are three user friendly options, all offer immediate setup: ConstantContact, MailChimp and iContact. Of these, MailChimp is a local Georgia company and offers a free option up to 500 addresses. All three offer “button code” (to copy and paste for gathering sign-ups on your website), professionally designed email templates, social links and message metrics. Prices are comparable.

The way these work is once you’ve signed up for an account, you’ll be prompted to upload your email list. All services accept various file formats ranging from comma separated lists to Excel files. Next, you’ll select a stock email design, upload your customized email banner (if available) and write and send professional looking emails to your supporters. Don’t forget to add the button code or a link provided by the email service to your website to gather email addresses.

7] Online contribution processing

There are many choices* for secure online contribution collection, but here are a few to start with: PayPal®, ActBlue, Piryx™, RallyClick&Pledge, Blue Utopia, Google Checkout, and Donation Control. All have different pricing terms. Some charge setup fees, some take a percentage, some do both. Read the terms of each carefully before making a decision. For mobile contribution collection, there’s Square.

* Caveat Emptor.

8] Social Media

Facebook.com: For online political organizing, there’s facebook and there’s everything else. Facebook is the fastest, easiest way to build your core network, starting with personal friends and colleagues and working out. For example, Carol Porter didn’t wait for her website to come online. She used facebook to get the word out and by the time her website launched had over 1,400 fans. Her web vendor was then able to use a facebook plugin to display supporter icons which gave her website immediate presence. Carol is doing a great job with social media, mainly because she keeps it personal by regularly updating her own fb status.

Twitter.com: In my opinion, twitter is a better resource for candidates than their supporters. Here’s what I mean. The immediate, informal, truncated nature of tweets has landed many a politico in hot water. Unlike facebook, anyone can sign up to follow your tweets without approval. It’s possible to block readers, but often impossible to tell friend from foe. However, following the tweets of key supporters, local news sources, and even other candidates in your area helps keep you in the loop. If you must, twitter can be used as another channel for campaign news or set to automatically display the feed from your blog, if you have one. As long as you understand it’s not intended for every thought that pops into your head, you should be fine.

Blogging: Forget about blogging. Back in the day when blogging was new and Content Management Systems were rare, a campaign blog was often the only way to get messages out quickly. That’s no longer the case.  Having a blog, especially one with comments closed, is just another thing for your campaign to keep up.

Bloggers are another matter. Read them if you must, but don’t allow them to derail or distract your campaign. There’s often a love-hate relationship between candidates and bloggers. You want all the notice, but none of the criticism. We get that. If you get tagged, remember three things: 1) there’s a right way to push back, 2) blog posts are transient and 3) your voters do not live here, but your base does.

1) If you’re a candidate, your words should only appear above the fold. Stay out of the comments. If something is blatantly incorrect, have a friend or staffer post a correction or clarify your position. If that doesn’t work, call or send the author an email. If a blog post or comment is written by an anonymous author, ignore it for the crap it is. Keep your staff and volunteers under control. Sometimes blog comments are used by competing camps to bait and/or vent at each other, wasting time and energy.

2)  Political blogs, especially local ones, have a relatively small readership of political insiders. When politics and blogs hook up, snark is spawned. Unless something is picked up directly by the MSM, (a rare occurrence), most blog controversies are tempest in tiny teapots lasting only a day or two. If you don’t like what you’re reading today, check back tomorrow. Chances are the entry will be off the front page and all but forgotten.

3) Blogs can sometimes offer a litmus test of how well or how poorly your campaign is performing and, to that extent, can be somewhat instructive. But barring an earth shattering revelation, they will never win or lose your race. However, because MSM reporters find reading blogs easier than hitting the streets, blogs can sometimes influence press coverage. For this to work, information is required. Since information that’s available to everyone is often of interest to no one, sending blanket press releases pretty much guarantees you’ll be ignored. The best way to reach out is to find a blogger who’s sympathetic to your cause and contact them directly. We won’t shill, but most of us will help if asked.

For more/better info about the wonderful world of social media, see Nine Things Campaigns Shouldn’t Forget in the Gee-Whiz World of the Social Web by Martin Matheny writing for epolitics.com.

9] Integration

Individually, the online campaign modules mentioned here are powerful, but when locked together they really shine. Every component of your campaign communication should (if possible), include a link or mention of ever other component. The goal is to create a seamless web presence from many parts. Supporters shouldn’t have to hunt for your website URL while on your facebook page. They shouldn’t have to go to your website to find your facebook link after reading one of your emails, and so on. It’s up to you to put it all out there because you never know how supporters will prefer to engage your campaign. In many cases, integration can be automated. For example, your facebook page can be automatically set to feed your twitter account and vice versa. Your flickr account will automatically feed into your website and/or facebook page, and so on. MailChimp now has social media functions that allow signups from your facebook page and offer sharing tools on emails.

10] VoteBuilder

Democratic candidates may purchase access to their online voter database (VoteBuilder) offered through the DNC and their state Democratic Party. VoteBuilder is available to Democratic candidates at all levels. Access fees are based on the size of your district. For more information, contact your state party.

Finally,

This might seem obvious but I’ll write it anyway. Keep all your log-ins, passwords and pin numbers together in a safe place and only share them with trusted staff or volunteers. Use different passwords for each application, just in case. Always provide an email address that only you have access to as the administrative contact. When working with open source software, a few precautions will keep everything running smoothly.

Now get out there and win one for the home team!