2016 Republican Website Wars: The Good, the Bad, and the Merely Functional

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TechCrunch recently convened an all-star panel of website designers and digital marketing experts to review the online offerings of the major 2016 Republican candidates. The rankings included some expected results, such as former tech CEO Carly Fiorina producing a lively, innovative site… but there were some surprises, too, such as a threadbare effort from media omnivore Donald Trump, measured against a sleek and social-media-savvy site for his nemesis Jeb Bush.

On the whole, the candidates’ websites seemed surprisingly timid, even backward, as if the designers were primarily afraid of (a) soaking up too much bandwidth from visitors, and (b) leaving some important scrap of text off the main screen, for fear that visitors would explore no further. These are both very last-generation concerns. Seriously, folks, it’s 2015. A dash of animation, such as Fiorina and Chris Christie offer, will not cause anyone’s computer to chug.

I had the opportunity to talk with one of the TechCrunch judges, Jebbit CEO Jonathan Lacoste, about the website rankings. I could find little reason to dispute any of the grades handed out by the judges, which raises the first interesting point: why are so many wildly disparate campaigns in the crowded Republican fields making the same website mistakes? Poor visual design choices, limited integration with social media, and above all a dearth of content hinder so many online campaigns. Why make repeat visits to a candidate’s website when there is little interesting material to share, the “news” is nothing you can’t get from traditional news sources, and the campaign blog hasn’t been updated in a week?

Lacoste thought it noteworthy that so many campaign sites resemble each other and “run into a blur” – a curious emphasis on “tradition” for an art form that hasn’t existed for very long, relatively speaking.

As for content, he lauded Jeb Bush’s website for skillfully using the “long scroll” format and plenty of fresh content to create a site that visitors wanted to read, and revisit. He thought the other campaigns might catch up as the race evolved, and it became more clear what sort of content they could most usefully spotlight.

“I almost suspect that everyone’s still kind of dipping their toes in the water, because the field is so crowded,” Lacoste speculated.  “Content creation and generation is not easy.  It takes a lot of concentrated effort…. candidates that are on the lower end of the spectrum haven’t been able to devote the resources or dollars to that.”

He cited the websites of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul as examples of lively sites that post a good deal of fresh material on a regular basis, while Chris Christie’s was an example of a “barebones” site with relatively little timely content.

On the surface, it would not seem difficult to hire a few content creators, or even recruit talented volunteers from a candidate’s energetic followers, and simple common sense suggests that a beautifully-designed website with largely static content isn’t going to bring in many new visitors, repeat visits, or social-media shares.

One possible reason for sparse content generation came up during my conversation with Lacoste: in the age of Internet media, candidates are very concerned about message discipline.  Skilled content creators could go off-message, either on the campaign website or through their own social-media accounts.  Such incidents have occurred in campaigns old and new, making the challenge of content creation a little more daunting.  It’s not just about budgeting for writers, it’s about finding the right people and ensuring they are completely on board with campaign strategy.

Interactive content is another area candidates are only just beginning to explore.  Lacoste cited the interactive campaign map on Senator Rand Paul’s website as a notable example of something visitors can play with, as opposed to merely reading or watching.  Outside the political world, digital marketers have discovered interactivity is a good way to bring both repeat visits and shares – it gives visitors something interesting to tell their friends about.

Integration with social media is a new challenge as well.  Merely dropping a “like us on Facebook” button at the top of the site isn’t good enough any more.

“2008 was really the first year that social media and digital really took hold for the Democratic side, for Obama,” said Lacoste.  “I think in 2012, you saw Romney participate in that, but I think 2016 could be the first year where we see full-blown participation.”  He added with a chuckle, “That doesn’t mean it will all be really high-quality…

One example of aggressive social-media usage jumps right off the main page at Jeb Bush’s site: his campaign slogan, “All In For Jeb,” was made into a Twitter hashtag and prominently displayed as the primary piece of information broadcast into the eyes of visitors.  This is perhaps a tad unfortunate for the gentleman whose face is completely obscured by the pound sign, in the background photo of a smiling Bush meeting-and-greeting regular folks, but it’s an effective use of social media convention.  It’s also an important signal of engagement.  Even those who might not be inclined to plaster Bush’s hashtag across their own Twitter feed can immediately see this is a campaign that understands how hashtags work.  (A few of the other campaigns are really missing the boat by not prominently hashtagging their slogans, such as Chris Christie’s “Telling it Like it Is” or Ben Carson’s “Heal – Inspire – Revive.”)

Another interesting case of social media engagement is Donald Trump, whose website is sparse, but who has been aggressively using platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.  There are plenty of opportunities for candidates willing to put some effort into making a pioneer showing on new services.  Even if the potential audience is smaller, a strong showing on cutting-edge new platforms is an easy way for a candidate to impress young, tech-savvy voters.

Another good way to seem cutting-edge is to provide a full-fledged, attractive mobile version of campaign websites, something that not all of the candidates seem to have thought about.  Mobile devices represent a great deal of modern traffic, especially from people on the go – commuters, students, office workers with a little time to surf the Web on breaks, tablet and smartphone fans who would rather not be stuck at their home computer desks all evening…

“I don’t want to say the role of the website has diminished,” Lacoste offered, “but let’s say they’re a lot less important if they’re not connecting with the right people, and reaching the right audience.  My thought is that campaigns are putting a lot of time, effort, and technology into figuring out that piece as well.”

He made the fascinating observation that old-school campaign websites provide an opportunity for shaping narratives, more than serving as a primary source of information about the candidate – these sites are, in essence, aggregators of news bits, videos, and links about the candidate, just as many commercial websites serve to aggregate news and paint pictures with data for their audiences.  All of those fast-moving social media sources can provide information for the campaign to paint with.  Notice how many commercial sites put effort into harvesting favorable mentions from Twitter, Facebook, and similar sources to create testimonial banners and sidebars, or elevate user reviews of their products to equal prestige with professional reviews.

In the Information Age, it is very good to have proof that people are talking about you.  Lacoste also explained that wise marketing teams pay close attention to the feedback coming through social media, a task made easier by providing users with tools that link their comments together for easier analysis.  Analyzing every Tweet that mentions Jeb Bush is a lot harder than analyzing every Tweet that either references his Twitter handle, or uses his #AllInForJeb hashtag.

It’s likely that some of these campaign websites will evolve as the campaign continues.  Naturally, each candidate hopes he or she will succeed, while competitors drop out of the race, bringing in more money to develop a stronger online presence, and making it easier to get noticed in a steadily less-crowded field.  A few of the websites for “outsiders” like Carson and Fiorina are naturally devoted to introducing the candidate; that could become less of an emphasis if they stay in the game long enough to reach the point where everyone knows who they are.

It’s a simple imperative, awesomely complex in execution: a candidate wants people talking about, visiting, and sharing that website, giving the campaign a chance to both control its narrative, and collect information about interested voters.  The site has to look clean and fresh enough to impress heavy Web users… but many of the 2016 models violate some of the most basic rules of aesthetics.  The site must have content worth sharing, and enough new content to drive traffic… but many of them don’t.  The site should send a message about the candidate, but only a few of the 2016 sites currently seem like a reflection of campaign personality.  Senator Marco Rubio, for example, runs a campaign website that looks like something excited young people would put together about an inspiring young candidate.  They even worked in a cat photo.

And all of this must be done with both campaign discipline and what Lacoste referred to as fluidity – moving fast, responding to inputs from both legacy news and New Media, making sure that the campaign feels exciting.  It’s harder than it looks, especially in an era when discipline demands a large number of officials and consultants, plus the candidates themselves, sign off on every move.  2016 campaign websites are a contest between the Good, the Bad, and the Merely Functional.  The latter is a lot worse than being ugly, because at least people notice ugly.  Nobody buzzes about bare-bones WordPress templates.