Eighteen months is a long time in political websites. After stuttering along with little idea where they were going, politicians are finally starting to see how they can use the web. In some way, indeed, they are leapfrogging the commercial world.
I have been watching party sites for ages and had more or less given up on them. The problem, I decided, was that the needs of a political party – to provide snappy messages without too much opportunity for discussion – fitted ill with a website’s immense storage capacity and interactivity. In the spring of 2005, I said that ‘despite the arrival of blogs and other devices, the parties have little more idea how to use the medium than they did four or even eight years ago.’
On the surface, little has changed. Most party sites are pretty pointless. The French Socialist Party encourages you to download a poster protesting at the privatisation of Gaz de France, or to ‘zoom’ into pages on different policies.
The US Democrats have a dull site with a mix of motherhood-and-apple-pie declarations and Republican bashing.
The UK Labour Party site had a main headline on Wednesday reading ‘Cameron lacks leadership on security – Reid’. Little, in other words, to make anyone but the most committed supporters tarry.
There are variations. US parties have accepted that only true believers can be bothered with their sites, so use them as a sort of in-house noticeboard. The Action Center displayed on the Republican home page includes Host a House Party or Event, Contact 20 Voters and Find Volunteers Near You (keen on capital letters, these people).
The French UMP simply puts a picture of a pretty girl on its home page, which is borrowing one of the oldest tricks in magazine publishing.
And the Conservatives in Britain have been happily rebranding their site in sleek green and blue: the site looks quite distinct but most of the changes are, it seems, of style rather than content.
But as a plethora of media stories have pointed out, there has been a huge amount of activity at the trendy new end of the web business. Blogs are a big part of this, so is video. The ultimately fashionable ‘social networking’ sites could give a leg up to politicians too.
Eighteen months ago I trawled through a quagmire of deadly dull political blogs before finding one that was readable. As it was by the professional journalist and eccentric Boris Johnson, this is not surprising. His blog, www.boris-johnson.com, is readable as ever, and has even been joined by another site, www.boriswatch.com, that acts as his fan club. But Boris is now only one political blogger among thousands.
Ministers, even prime ministers, are getting in on the act. I wish my Farsi and Hungarian were a little less rusty – it would be fascinating to know what two of the more colourful leaders - Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran, www.ahmadinejad.ir - and Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary, http://blog.amoba.hu, have to say.
Although generally what I find more interesting is what other people have to say: blogs are interactive, and the ‘comments’ tell you more about their effectiveness than any amount of burbling by the politicians themselves. A recent piece in the FT teased David Miliband, the UK’s environment minister, for his somewhat mundane posts www.davidmiliband.defra.gov.uk. But if you look at the replies he has been getting, you will see that the down-to-earth approach encourages sensible, possibly even useful, conversation. Mr Miliband is getting free advice, and even if he takes no notice of it, it makes him look open and receptive. What more could he want?
Well, he might follow Ségolène Royal, leader of the French socialists, who has been using her ‘Future wishes’ site (www.desirsdavenir.org) as a sort of running focus group to help establish her policies. She has started off 10 debates with a string of questions, and then waited for replies. It has worked, perhaps too well. The ‘France and immigration’ debate has generated more than 2,000 messages since May, most a paragraph or two, some much longer – and all serious, in the best French sense of the word. Whether Ms Royal and her cohorts read and digest them all is another topic for debate, but she has certainly taken Tony Blair’s successful ‘see what the punters want’ approach of a decade ago and brought it bang up to date.
Web video has been around since the beginning, but broadband makes it sensible. All the parties need is a way to make it work for them. The Republicans have a Bush video on their home page, while the Conservatives are offering speeches from their conference in a number of formats including video podcast, so you can watch and listen on your mobile phone, if it is clever enough. Trouble is, speeches are speeches – you might just listen to a speech entitled ‘Improving our transport system is a social responsibility’, but would you really want to look at the besuited gent who is delivering it? It comes back to the ‘only for committed supporters’ problem.
But the Conservatives do seem to realise this, and are making videos that are (almost) worth watching. Or rather trying hard to not try hard. The secret here is to combine video with the informal feel of a blog, which means they must not be too slick – ‘the people’ make recordings that are amateurish, so politicians must mimic them. David Cameron’s new site (www.webcameron.org.uk), which includes a video diary, is a terrific example: the baby crying in the background may been a set-up, but the way he fluffed his lines shows either that he is a terrific actor, or that he was fluffing his lines. I’ll go with the latter.
Why though would anyone but the committed supporter go to Mr Cameron’s site in the first place? Answer: they shouldn’t have to if ‘social networking’ sites fulfil their potential. I went to YouTube, a gigantic (and gigantically popular) site that lets people either upload or watch videos. Nothing on the Conservatives but when I typed ‘democrats’ into the search engine, I found more than 3,000 clips. They included obviously planted material such as a ‘montage of advertisements for Democratic candidates’ alongside a raft of assaults on the party. A video lifted from the Republican site that ‘highlights the hypocrisy of Democrat leaders on the War on Terror’ has been viewed more than 8,000 times – I bet that’s much more than it has been on gop.com.
I see two lessons from this. First, negative is much better than positive – parties need to get ever dirtier. Second, be brilliant. If you want the masses to spread your message around social networking sites, you will have to tap the very best talent in commercial and maybe comedy production. Use the search term ‘brilliant republicans’ on YouTube and you will find a video of a man in a garage saying why republicans are so great. Or not: watch it to the end. Will real politicians be able to mimic such subtlety? At least they should now be switched on enough to try.
David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co