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Political parties: In Web we trust

Republicans and Democrats are using the Web more aggressively to reach voters. But a new study reveals several shortcomings on campaign sites.

Political parties are using the Web more aggressively to reach voters and gather personal information such as e-mail during this election season, an indication of the Internet's growing importance on the campaign scene.

A new study by political consultants PoliticsOnline and RightClick Strategies praised the major political parties for their continuing embracement of the Web as a vehicle for getting their message out. The report examined how official sites of the Republican and Democratic parties are communicating, fund raising and organizing this campaign season.

Researchers found that the Democratic National Committee did a better job of collecting e-mail addresses of voters, but the Republican National Committee excelled in selectively targeting and sending more information to people whose e-mails it had.

However, the study criticized the parties' sites overall for several shortcomings, including not providing search features, being difficult to navigate, and failing to keep their sites fresh.

"With the election approaching, and the political arena a hotbed for news in general, it is not for lack of material that the committees do not provide daily updates to their respective sites," researchers wrote. "It was not uncommon during the course of this study for material on home pages to be more than two weeks old."

The Web has been slowly encroaching upon the political scene since it became a mass medium.

Back in 1996, even the presidential candidates posted little more than political pamphlets on their sites. Things, and fortunes, changed by the 2000 election--which took place amid the backdrop of the go-go dot-com era. Much ballyhooed sites such as exploded onto the scene, taking their place in political convention skyboxes next to the networks, offering voters features and access only possible via the Web. Citizens could chat with candidates online, get a behind-the-scenes 3D view of political events, and organize real-time get-out-the-vote efforts.

However, many of the sites' political ambitions flamed out soon after they appeared on the scene, their fortunes declining as the dot-com bubble burst. Some even shut their doors before voting day.

Now, with sites such as little more than a footnote in campaign history books, political consultants are looking back at the era--and examining how the Web has evolved since then--to try to figure out what works.

Campaigns are finding that the Internet provides a more efficient tool to narrowly target voters than television, and the Web can make fund-raising efforts cheaper and easier.

The PoliticsOnline study offered a lengthy list of methods to improve campaign sites. Many of them draw upon the latest Web marketing techniques from the corporate world.

Researchers suggest making it extremely easy for voters to submit their e-mail and other personal information by providing them with sign-in boxes as often as possible. The sites also need to inform voters about the frequency and content of any e-mails they will receive. In addition, the study suggests capturing e-mail address through two tried-and-true features in the corporate world: sweepstakes and the "e-mail to a friend." The study praised the Web as a fund-raising platform, proposing that parties take advantage of the feature by asking for donations on every page.

Researchers also suggest that campaigns personalize communications as much as possible with individually tailored greetings (such as "dear Mrs. Smith") and by letting people sign up for e-mails based on their interests in topics such as the economy or education.

On the content front, the report makes several suggestions for a robust campaign site, including offering television and radio ads for downloads, updating the site frequently, providing links to archival material, and options that make it easy to find personalized information about a candidate such as a calendar of events and a search-by-zip-code feature.