Monday, May 17, 2010

Analyzing Nathan Deal's online presence


With mid-term elections heating up all across the nation, it's perhaps not insignificant to note that this year's candidates have been profoundly impacted by the 2008 presidential election. I'm not talking about the outcome so much as I'm referencing the way the campaigns were run. We've looked at the ins and outs of the quantifiable media factors that led to the election of Barack Obama, explored the Web 2.0 tools available to conservatives who want to close the "reach" gap online, and discussed campaign finance, its value to corporations and its role in corporate communications. The empirically liberal lean of the mainstream media has also been well-documented on this blog.

All that being said, I thought it might be a fun exercise to pick a race, analyze it and follow it to note the trendiness (or lack their of) of respective campaign efforts. So, I'll be following the governor race in my home state of Georgia - because we all know that the state of Georgia sets the standard for online trendiness, right?

I'll try to take one candidate every day or so, and analyze his/her online presence. So, let's get this ball rolling...

Nathan Deal: Republican Candidate for Governor

Political Art by Ken BaldowskiWe'll start with the man who - for all intents and purposes - is the current gubernatorial front-runner. Rasmussen Reports has Mr. Deal beating the likely Democratic nominee, Roy Barnes, 46 to 39 percent. Over a month ago, Deal was only ahead 43 to 40. So, for what it's worth, Mr. Deal is obviously doing some things right. Kudos and good luck to he and his team. Now to dissect his online presence...

Let's be honest, most folks aren't going to memorize the website url of a candidate for governor. I'd wager that a vast majority of Mr. Deal's web traffic comes from either organic searches (i.e. people searching for "Nathan Deal" on Google) or through redirect links from race-tracking websites like Politics1.com, USElections.com, Wikipedia, or PeachPundit.com. This is hardly a shocking revelation, given that organic searches and inbound links are the primary traffic-drivers for most websites.

What is significant to note, however, is that at least Mr. Deal's staff had the good sense to use an intuitive url - unlike Ray McBerry (R), who for some inexplicable reason decided to go with GeorgiaFirst.org.

Why does the url matter? Because 1) some people still try to find websites by manually typing intuitive urls into their web browser and 2) having your name in your url helps your website's search engine optimization (SEO). If nothing else, it's good brand reiteration. I should probably note, though, that a ".com" domain would have been even more intuitive than the ".org."

Now, it's rare that you'd type in a candidate's name and not get their campaign site as the first or second result. But what about those second and third level pages and micropages? The name of the game in political online messaging is to dominate the first page or two of results someone sees when they search for information about you - and having your name in the url can help. It's a minor point, but one worth noting.

Which brings us to our next point - SEO. Mr. Deal, as of this article's composition, has relatively terrible SEO. Go ahead. Google his name. Among the top results are several negative news articles, from late March and early April, discussing Mr. Deal's run-in with alleged ethics violations.

Now, let's say you're totally unfamiliar with Mr. Deal and want to learn more about him. So, you Google his name... and there you have a prime instance of why dominating the front page of Google is so important.

Obviously, articles from news sites like the Washington Post - if they write about you - are going to show up on your first page of search results right after they've been posted. But for articles that are about two months old to have not been bumped off the first page of results for "Nathan Deal" indicates a failure on two parts: failure on the part of his Public Relations team to get him more recent (and positive) publicity, and on the part of his new media team to to employ the intrinsic SEO value of social media.

Moving to the website, the Deal team has decided to use a landing page with what's called a "call to action" to donate. I get the political practicality of it, I do. But they're losing an opportunity here. Instead of impressing the random website visitor with superb messaging or *gasp* substance, he's asking for money.
I know, I know... money - more often than not - wins elections. It just stands to reason that people would be more inclined to donate to your campaign after they know what you stand for, not before. And if Mr. Deal's team expects people to donate first... what does that say (rightly or wrongly) about his campaign?

So, let's "skip to the main site."

The layout is kind of edgy, professional and clean, but the tabs on the right and the overall copy could use a publicist's touch. I suppose someone decided it was good to give his talking points/buzz words prominent positioning on the website. But if they're going to go that route, simply projecting that he's "real, respected, proven, and conservative" and has "vision" for "real jobs" won't convince a lot of folks. It might make sense to reference external sources that reinforce (and hopefully confirm) these assertions. And, guess what, outbound links help the website's SEO.

The "Now! Updates" tab has some nice, relevant information which, for all intents and purposes, should probably be feeding - in its entirety - onto the main page (like a blog). This area of information is really where the campaign has its best opportunity to control its own messaging. People shouldn't have to go through three tiers of the website to get to it. And, for goodness sake, enable fan comments!

Also, an RSS feed for this section of the website would be productive as it would allow others to subscribe to this content - or even post it to their own websites with a widget. There's nothing quite as savvy as letting your fans become advocates of your brand!

The "Next! Event" tab also has some good information. If the campaign wants to be really savvy, it can sync these upcoming events with a public Google calendar, and offer an "add this event to your calendar" link at the end of each listing. A Facebook calendar is fine, but it's not as compatible with as many options as a Google calendar. This lets people integrate the events with their own schedule a bit more seamlessly. Additionally, more information about each event and a POC would make sense as well.

The "Act! Volunteer" tab is nice. The Deal campaign has taken a page from the Obama playbook and offered their supports an easy, seamless way to become active advocates. Aggregating and activating one's base is essential - as President Obama proved in 2008 - in creating the perception (if not the reality) of widespread support.

Oh, and just in case you missed the massive"DONATE!" landing page, or the slightly less massive "DONATE!" button in the upper left corner of the home page, there's another opportunity to "DONATE!" through the tab in the lower right corner. And while the "Deal. Real. Online Store" has a nice, simple layout, all the persistent requests for money send the message that Deal would rather have your money than your vote.

The "Connect" tab is fine, but conventional wisdom suggests that you give your social media iconography more prevalent placement on the home page. These social media channels like Twitter and Facebook provide yet another medium through which a candidate can funnel his/her messaging and calls to action. They also serve as barometers by which you can gauge the reaction of your supporters to relative current events. They're vital tools in any online campaign initiative, and they're placement on the home page should reflect that.

Suffice it to say, the website could use some rearranging and some better prioritization, but the Deal squad is definitely doing some things right.

On to social media.

At minimum, a major candidate should have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. These are currently your "big four" social media. Deal only has Facebook and Twitter listed on his website, and Twitter appears to be run by his campaign, not him (it's written in third person). Most social media "gurus" will tell you, if you want people to be jazzed about connecting with you online, it needs to be you that they're connecting with, not your staff.

Further, the Facebook vanity url (http://www.facebook.com/DealforGovernor2010) wasn't the best choice. If he wins, he'll either have to start a new fan page with a new url, or he'll have to continue on with the current one. Reason being, of course, that Facebook only lets you set your custom (vanity) url once.

On Twitter, Mr. Deal is pulling in fewer followers (742) than I have (2,361). I'd expect a leading candidate for governor of a state with nearly 10 million people to have a larger following than a relatively inconsequential blogger. Just saying...

That being said, I'd think that the Nathan Deal troop could drive their Twitter numbers up by 1) placing the Twitter iconography more prominently on the website 2) employing the use of bit.ly links to monitor reaction to the content they're posting (and then adjust accordingly) 3) using @replies and #hashtags more frequently to increase the visibility of his profile amongst relevant communities and thought leaders.

His Facebook page is pretty decent, and it has a sizable community (3,915). All the right basic content is in place (comments, photos, videos, links, a way to donate). If you're uploading videos on YouTube (and Deal appears to be), you should just post those YouTube video links on your wall instead of bothering with the direct Facebook video upload. YouTube videos can attract traffic organically (through video searches both on YouTube and Google), and they can be played straight from your Facebook wall.

There are currently 34 uploads on his YouTube channel with nearly 5,000 upload views (roughly 150 views per video). More importantly, most of the videos aren't just promotional clips or ads - they're videos of Nathan Deal speaking directly about significant issues. Though, from a cursory glance, his new media team isn't optimizing the use of video tags, titling and captions - all of which affect his SEO within and outside of YouTube.

Something the new media team might want to consider is interacting with his online community. When people post a comment, it's ok to reply on behalf of Nathan Deal. That's why these people have come to his fan page - to support and interact with him. If they wanted to talk about Nathan Deal with no response, they could do it on their own Facebook page.

Something else to consider might be some additional outbound marketing - going to other relevant Facebook pages (like the RNC or the Georgia National Guard pages, for example) to interact with various pockets of his potential constituency.

Further, not everything posted to his Facebook or Twitter needs to be exclusively about him. It's smart to post links to articles that he agrees with - or even ones he disagrees with - so that he can clarify his positions in a way that seems less promotional. The more content you post, the more frequently you'll show up in your fans' activity streams.

I was impressed to see that Mr. Deal has a presence on LinkedIn... but he only has 24 connections and he doesn't appear to have joined or interacted with any groups. While at least having a presence on LinkedIn can help his SEO message control, it's the ability to interact with LinkedIn's affluent and professional community that makes the juice worth the squeeze. But at least he's on there!

Beyond the obvious observation that the Deal camp might want to consider further engaging other social media (Flickr, Digg, RSS, MySpace, etc.) to increase their SEO control of the first page of Google search results, I should point out that if they aren't contributing to Wikipedia - they should be. A Wikipedia page is the third result for "Nathan Deal." Wikipedia has become many people's quick, primary reference to online information and, if you aren't participating in the the articles produced about you, you're needlessly forfeiting a major online battle ground.

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All of this being said, it's interesting to note how far politicians have come in their online campaign efforts in so short a time. In 2008, the RNC was still calling its internet initiative an "e-campaign." Flash forward two years, and Republicans are flooding into major social media channels. Times, they are a changin'.
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