Candidates Boost Online Campaign Strategies

Through ring tones, viral videos and social networking sites, presidential candidates are relying more on the Internet than any of their predecessors. We explore the highlights and examine whether cyber-connectivity translates into votes.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

The presidential candidates have targeted different states in different ways. There is one place they are all competing, and that's on the Internet.

With more on the digital campaign, here is DAY TO DAY's Alex Cohen.

ALEX COHEN: Want to see baby photos of John McCain or get Mike Huckabee's recipe for fried squirrel? Or maybe you need a new ring tone for your mobile phone.

(Soundbite of "Letter to Obama" ring tone)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Go, go, go, Obama, Obama, go.

COHEN: Yes. All this and more is available online at the candidates' Web sites. There are bios and blogs, videos and podcasts.

At Mitt Romney's site you can send personalized phone messages to your friends and family.

(Soundbite of phone message)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Wisconsin; Presidential Candidate): Betty, hello. This is Mitt Romney. I'm calling on behalf of your father, Frank. He suggested that I give you a call about supporting my campaign.

COHEN: Mindy Finn is Romney's director of e-strategy. She says they have created interactive elements like the customized greetings and online contests to keep people coming back to MittRomney.com.

Ms. MINDY FINN (E-Strategist): So that we're taking them from someone who is interested, moving them to someone who is engaged, and then hopefully from engaged to active in the campaign, both online and offline.

COHEN: But a successful online strategy requires more than just interactivity, says Todd Ziegler of the D.C.-based Web design firm, the Bivings Group.

Mr. TODD ZIEGLER (The Bivings Group): The Obama site is definitely my favorite.

COHEN: And that's a surprising judgment, considering Ziegler's a Republican, who recently worked on Fred Thompson's Web site. But he says he likes BarackObama.com for its original design.

Mr. ZIEGLER: In doing designs for the candidates, it's very easy to kind of lose the candidate. You could almost just take the picture and the tagline and flip it out and it could be somebody else's Web site. With Obama, the site itself at this point really matches his message, meaning it's kind of hopeful and it's almost - you feel like he's trying to inspire you.

COHEN: Zeigler also commends the folks behind Ron Paul's Web site, which features a live ticker that tracks campaign contributions and lists the names of the people who've donated.

Mr. ZIEGLER: It's what people call the video game effect, where you kind of give just so you can go back and see the number move.

COHEN: Ron Paul's campaign also earned high marks from Internet marketing specialist Lee Evans. Evans says most of the candidates have done a great job making their presence known on social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace. But she faults campaigns that don't update their candidate's personal profiles on these sites.

For example, some of John Edwards' profile pages haven't been touched in more than a year.

Ms. LEE EVANS (Internet Marketing Specialist): If you're going to advertise that you are on these social networks, you should be actually interacting with the people on these social networks so you can get your message out.

COHEN: Her other pet peeve? Splash pages - those initial pages on a Web site that you have to look at before clicking through to the rest of the site. Many candidates feature splash pages with Donate Now buttons or boxes to submit your e-mail address.

>Ms. EVANS: And what it does is it kind of makes the person think, oh, I have to sign up for their e-mail list or I have to contribute before I actually get to their Web site. And that can be a real turn-off to the user who has come to the page looking for the information about the candidate.

COHEN: The campaigns may not have mastered the digital domain just yet, but they have come a long way, says Julie Barko Germany of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. She says the Web had served some candidates very well in one key area - fundraising.

For example, she likes something called McCain's Space. It's the Arizona senator's version of MySpace, where supporters can urge their friends to contribute.

Ms. JULIE BARKO GERMANY (Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet): That's really cool because it uses this peer pressure element of fundraising. You see lots of small dollar contributions coming in. So 20 bucks here, five bucks here, 50 bucks there. And over time these small contributions can really build up.

COHEN: Of course, in the end what's most important to any campaign is votes. And she says there is no hard data showing that FaceBook profiles or YouTube videos or downloadable ring tones make any difference in that department.

Ms. GERMANY: All of these things draw attention to the campaigns, but they're not tools of persuasion. They tend to reach people who have already decided. Not that sweet spot, the undecideds who might be leaning towards your candidate and just need little more attention to vote.

COHEN: And for those of you listeners working on a campaign - sorry, it's too late to snatch up the domain name undecidedvoter.com. It's already been taken.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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