By Zev Winicur, special to TheContentWrangler.com
Note: In this article, very real-sounding numeric data is presented in an authoritative manner. Be forewarned that the IDQ percentage is completely made up without the benefit of scientific polls. Of course, New Hampshire showed us the utility of scientific polls…Despite the fact that most American’s claim to vote on the issues, I would wager that only about 25% of the voting public chooses a presidential candidate based on the issues alone. I personally include myself in this Issue-Driven Quarter (hereafter known as the IDQ). The members of the IDQ are not swayed by trivialities, such as whether or not the candidate has experience, the candidate exudes leadership, the candidate speaks in simple platitudes, or the candidate would be a fun beer-swilling companion. We want to know what the candidate believes in. We want to know what the candidate is likely to do or not to do if elected. We want to know if the candidate will take money from the rich and give it to the poor – or vice versa.
By the time a voter gets to the general election, selecting a candidate should be pretty straightforward. Although the candidates’ political stances may be muddied by election debates, sound bites, or dirty political tricks, most candidates follow their party’s ideologies so closely that any voter still claiming to be undecided either has no opinions at all or is just not paying attention.
Primary elections are another story altogether. The candidates within a particular party can not stray ideologically too far from the group center or they risk being shunned by the party faithful…or at least the party bosses. During the primaries, the candidates walk a very fine line between claiming that they are all alike and claiming that they are all completely different. In the end, of course, they all sound pretty much alike.
The IDQ have the difficult task of trying to distinguish the candidates based on stump speeches, voting records, and sound bites. Many Web-based tools have cropped up recently to help the political junkie find his or her “perfect” candidate by asking the voter a series of political, economic, and social questions. Most recently, I found Electoral Compass USA which charts the candidates on a two-dimensional axis: economics vs. social issues. Although the Republican candidates spread out a little bit on the Electoral Compass USA map, the Democratic candidates cluster together in a tight grouping. Differences in the issues become meaningless because a true Democrat would be happy to vote for ANY of them based on the issues alone.
IDQers are left looking at (shudder) non-issue specific factors, and this goes against our very nature. How do we tell who has the most believable, understandable, motivating, and succinct message? How do we judge relative charisma and leadership appeal? How do we find the candidate least likely to start a war in the Middle East based on trumped up intelligence and incompetent staffers? Do we rely on television pundits? Newspaper columnists? Bloggers? Oprah?
The answer, believe it or not, is the candidates’ own campaign websites.
“How can that be?” I hear you say, “Aren’t campaign websites inherently biased?” Yes. Of course. And that’s the point. Campaign websites are marketing material, but they are enduring marketing material. As such, they have to be prepared carefully. Everything the candidate wants to get across has to be made blindingly obvious. Everything the candidate wants you to forget about has to be hidden.
It’s all about technical communication. Format, style, and audience is as important as basic content when delivering a message. Content by itself is meaningless. Content in context is key. And since the Internet is the new political medium, campaign websites not only reflect the candidates’ personas, they also give insight into the candidates strengths and weaknesses. As an exercise, lets compare the three Democratic frontrunner sites:
When analyzing political websites, I have found four determinants to be particularly telling:
- Appearance (look-and-feel)
When users visit any of the three candidates’ websites for the first time, a splash page appears encouraging them to contribute to the campaign. Although Obama’s and Edwards’ sites both show black-and-white pictures of the candidates with their families, Clinton’s site only shows Hillary’s smiling head. It’s a very interesting difference. Obama and Edwards want to remind you of their families; Clinton wants you to forget hers. This is a pragmatic move considering the perception in this country that a vote for Hillary is really just a vote for Bill. Hillary has to establish herself as an independent entity.
Moving past the splash page, the color palette of the front page is important. For example, Edwards’s site mixes red, blue, green, and pale yellow. The site appears to be going for a more folksy look with the shades of pale yellow and tan. Unfortunately, the mix of colors makes the site look too busy and not at all engaging.
Clinton’s site uses a very striking red, white, and blue. The bright colors are energizing and suggest a campaign gaining momentum. Furthermore, the patriotic color theme is stronger here than in the Websites of the other two candidates.
Obama’s site primarily uses blue and white with a little bit of red. The colors are less energizing, but they are very comfortable. Not only do you want to stay on the site and stare at the blue and white, but the message conveyed is…and I know this is trite…that Obama is “True Blue.”
The pictures on the front page are also telling. Edwards’ site features a picture of the candidate holding his son, surrounded by his family and a few supporters. Along with the text, “For the millions of unheard voices in the country,” the picture sends the message that this is the candidate of the common man and woman.
A couple of days ago, Clinton’s site showed the her facing a massive audience of supporters. Along with the text, “Let’s Make History: Keep the Momentum Going!” the image spoke of a growing “movement” of supporters, and almost, but didn’t quite, come right out and tell you to jump on the Hillary Bandwagon. Although the slogan on the site now reads, “Solutions for the American Economy,” the picture is still one of Hillary addressing a large crowd.
Obama’s site shows masses of people in silhouette, but does not show actual faces. The picture is accompanied by the headline text, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours.” It is an interesting choice of image, because it asks the viewer to assume that his or her voice is represented in the mass of silhouettes. It is also a risky move, since it does not specifically reflect the viewer’s face in the crowd. The image seems to say, “Whoever you are, insert your face here.”
When analyzing Website language, assume you are a “typical” user and first look for the largest text. Whatever jumps off the page at you SHOULD be the main message. If your eyes are first drawn to the text, “CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION,” than the candidate really does not have a cohesive message.
On John Edwards’ splash page, the big text reads, “Join the Campaign to Change America.” This is such a hackneyed message as to be nearly meaningless. Since all the candidates talk about “change”, the site suggests a “me too” attitude in the candidate. “Change” has no tangible meaning. Even on the main page, Edwards’ patented “One America” slogan is lost in a sea of text. If you wait on the site long enough, the headline, “For the Millions of Unheard Voices in America,” appears in big letters. The message that Edwards is working for the common man and woman is a powerful message, but it is completely lost in the page’s rhetoric. To make matters worse, a particularly large link takes the user to Edwards’ 80-page book on One America. Who, on God’s green earth, wants to read an 80-page book about political rhetoric? We’ve got things to do…places to go…Runescape to play.
Contrast Edwards’ splash page with Obama’s: “Change We Can Believe In.” True, the requisite word “change” is mentioned, but Obama’s text immediately conveys two important messages. The word “we” immediately tells us that WE the voters are part of this change process, not just the candidate working alone. The text “believe” tells us that the change will be real, concrete change. We will know there is change. We can almost taste it. Obama’s message is then carried onto the main page with the text, “Yes, we can.” Again, we are all in this together…whatever “this” is.
Clinton has changed her Website slogan from “Help Make History: Keep the Momentum Going!” to “Solutions for the American Economy.” The first slogan invoked the gender issue, reminding the voter that she would be the first female president. The second slogan is much more pragmatic; it not only frames a national concern – the economy – but it also frames her role as a candidate – a solutions provider.
Unlike Obama’s page which is all about the voter, Clinton’s page is all about the candidate. Clinton’s campaign site says, “Hillary for President,” in big letters. It is a much more personal entreaty. Clinton wants you to know her as a PERSON, not just as an instrument of change, set of issues, or leader of a political party. “Hillary” is your buddy, your friend, your confidante. And considering that 75% of the voting public are not in the IDQ, this is likely to be a clever move.
As any good web developer will tell you, the structure or architecture of a website is a critical part of its usability. This is true for political websites as well; website architecture reflects the efficacy of a presidential campaign. An intuitive, easy-to-navigate site reflects a campaign with a clear message. By respecting the user experience, the candidate respects the user. A jumbled or overly-complex architecture reflects a struggling campaign.
Edwards’ front page suffers from an appalling lack of organization and architectural design. It throws much too much information onto the page without organizing it into discrete chunks. The page essentially tells the user, “All the information is here. It’s up to you to sort it out.” This is not an effective campaign strategy.
Clinton’s and Obama’s sites do a much better job of “chunking” out the information on the front page. Note, for example, how both sites clearly identify ways to support their campaigns besides contributing money. The sites differ in how much content they place above the scroll line. Clinton’s page opts for a more compact look, reducing the amount of scrolling needed to see the entire page. Obama’s page places much of the content below the scroll line to give the site a less cluttered, less content-heavy look. Obama trades in Web real estate for a longer, leaner, and – dare I say it – cleaner look. It’s a risky choice for Obama considering the perception that he is a candidate of rhetoric over substance.
Even the menu bars say something about the candidates. Clinton makes it much easier to find her stances on the issues. Scroll over the “Issues” tab and one will see actual statements instead of general topics: Strengthening the Middle Class, Ending the War in Iraq, Energy Independence & Global Warming, Fulfilling Our Promises to Veterans. With very few words, Clinton tells the user exactly where she stands and what she plans to do.
Obama’s most telling menu tab is the “People” tab. By listing different demographic groups, Obama associates himself with people more than issues. Why should I vote for Obama if I’m a veteran? Click the Veterans link. What about if I’m bisexual? Click the LGBT link. Organizing the links in this fashion frames the candidate as a person devoted to people, not simply a person devoted to issues.
According to Technical Writing 101 by Pringle and O’Keefe (2000), “Take your audience into account, but don’t insult your readers by assuming that sprinkling a few ethnic names throughout the document will, by itself, make your document appropriate for the audience.” Likewise, by identifying the most obvious and realistic audience of the website, one finds the true targeted constituents of the candidate.
Edwards, for example, is clearly targeting middle America. Even if you know nothing about his “Two Americas” speeches, the tagline, “For the Millions of Unheard Voices in America,” makes it clear that he sees himself as a champion for the poor. The South Carolina ad mentioning his father who worked in a mill seals this image.
Clinton’s audience is well-defined, although it changes whenever she changes her site. When I first started analyzing her site, her audience was clearly young voters. The Hillblazers (Young Leaders for Hillary in 2008) directs the user to the “Ask Hillary: Watch Hillary Answer Your Questions” video. This video combines scenes of young culturally diverse voters praising Hillary with scenes of Hillary answering questions posted on the Internet.
Clinton’s recent changes to her site also appear to target lower and middle income families. “Hillary’s Plan to Jumpstart the Economy” is not original in its concept, but the wording and pictures on the site clearly position her as a candidate who will provide government solutions to the problems of the poor and disenfranchised.
Obama’s Website is a harder nut to crack. The target audience appears to be…the entire country. Instead of focusing on specific constituents, he invites all demographic groups to help him “bring about real change in Washington.” If his tactic works, it’s a powerful strategy in that his target audience is very broad, including gays, veterans, people-of-faith, and environmentalists…to list but a few.
It is vitally important to understand that a Website analysis does NOT give the voter an in depth look of a candidate’s political profile. Obama’s political stances are just as well thought out and reasoned as are Clinton’s, possibly even more so. In fact, all three of candidates have clearly stated plans for Iraq, the economy, and social issues. The website analysis simply tells us how well the candidate COMMUNICATES this.
The analysis is also useful in that it sidesteps the argumentative rhetoric and he-said/she-said bickering so common during an election cycle. Do you really want to base your presidential choice on a 30-second sound bite taken out of context?
Obama’s message, “I’m asking you to believe,” resonates throughout the site. Obama asks you to see him as a straight-talking, true-blue candidate who will work WITH the American people to bring about change in Washington. Obama’s candidacy is not about Obama…it’s about YOU.
Clinton’s message, “Solutions for the American Economy,” is a bit more expedient than Obama’s, although it is clearly stated and clearly communicated. Clinton asks you to see her as a “solutions” person, a candidate whose years of experience are critical for bringing real change to Washington. However, Clinton, much more than Obama, wants you to know her as a person. Clinton wants you to know the real Hillary.
Edwards’ message, “One America,” could be much more effective if Edwards could broaden its target appeal and focus his image. Unfortunately, Edwards has clearly defined his target audience to the exclusion of other audiences. Furthermore, his poorly organized website, along with his prominent link to an 80-page book, presents him as a candidate with plenty of good ideas but a lack of a clear vision.
One last note: John Edwards gives real estate on his website to his wife and oldest daughter Cate in the hopes that we might understand him through his family. While a noble gesture, this may have been his worst move yet. I’m just a wee bit concerned that Cate listed The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath as one of her favorite books.
And we thought the Bush girls were trouble.
About the AuthorZev Winicur is a curriculum designer for CME Enterprise, a continuing medical education provider in Carmel, IN. Zev is the immediate past president of the Indiana Chapter of Society for Technical Communication and his eclectic background includes experience as a senior market research analyst, proposal writer, web content manager, and validation technical writer. Zev has a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Colorado.