The (Mostly) New BarackObama.com
BY Michael Turk | Monday, January 28 2008
I'm a bit late to the party on this, but hopefully it's fashionably late, and not like the guy that gets there after everyone has gone home and wants to sit and chat despite the fact that you're dropping hints for him to get out. I thought I'd take a closer look at the new BarackObama.com. I still think, despite all the prognostications that Hillary has it locked, that he'll pull this out and be the eventual nominee - even if it takes a floor fight.
This started as a review of the recently revamped website, and became sort of a hybrid post about the site and some general issues with online campaigns in general. I have to be honest; I began from the point of view that I don't really get why they changed the site at all. The vast majority of voters is still tuned out, probably had not been to the site, and therefore wouldn't really be sick of it. However, I realize that the staff probably was, the hardcore supporters probably were, and since Obama believes that change is good, well...
If the post gets kind of disjointed about halfway through, that's because the review also coincided with an interview I did with Jose Vargas and some questions about how campaigns should be using their site to engage voters in states where they may have little to no time to campaign as a result of the compressed primary schedule. After that call, I began to look at Obama's site through that prism, and specifically began to compare it to other sites through the same lens.
Color Scheme and Appearance
Honestly, I'm not a big fan of the glowing blue ethereal cloud look. It's a little too artsy for me. You can't really make it out in the screen grab above, but they also have a mesh effect oddly reminiscent of the background on dollar bills behind the sign up option. When they continue the flowing blue angel effect into the headline, as they did above, it makes the whole page a little overbearing. It's way too blue, and feels like I have died and Obama is the maker. I can't imagine that's the look they were going for.
On a whole other level, the site also contradicts one of the things so many people credit him for - his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Wasn't it he who spoke of no liberal America and no conservative America, but only one America. Didn't he challenge the idea of pundits dividing us into red states and blue states? Yet he seems to be sending a signal that he is the bluest of the blue.
I don't know if that was their intention, but as a Republican, it was the first thing I noticed. It's very, very, very blue.
The other big problem the site has is readability. With the text and background colors they have chosen, large chunks of the site become almost entirely unreadable. Take these two examples:
I'm no expert on graphic design, but I like to think I have a pretty good bead on what does and doesn't fly on the web. I also have a pretty good feel for what is and isn't W3C Compliant. Both of the examples above fail that test. The choice of grey text on white also causes readability issues throughout the site
Now I freely admit that I'm one of the older dogs in the online politics game. I'm knocking on 38 and most of the people I work with on campaigns are just out of (or still in) college. I suppose it's possible that Obama's website is kind of like the mosquito ringtone - only those under 30 can read it. If so, that might explain the huge advantage he enjoys with young voters.
Unfortunately, it causes a significant number of others to have a heck of a time working his navigation. Where I am from, that's a bad thing.
The Action Center
I continue to be a big fan of Obama's action center. Since the last time I spent time exploring his web presence, not much has changed as far as functionality with the exception of the online phone bank. One thing struck me about that tool, however. The Bush campaign referred to its online phone bank as Neighbor to Neighbor and under the larger umbrella "Personal Precinct". Mitt has "Call from Home" Thompson had "Phone for Fred", and McCain calls his, simply, "Online Phone Bank". These are less than clever names to be sure, but I do think these tools need to have a brand that conveys a) exactly what's expected and b) how simple that is. Obama calls his "Peer Contact". If I saw that as an uninitiated volunteer, new to the process, I would have no idea what it was. Even "Make Calls for Obama" would be better than "Peer Contact."
One problem Obama shares with his chief rival Hillary Clinton is a limited implementation of their calling tool. When I log in to Obama's application, I have the three options to make calls with two of those being into New Mexico. Hillary's, on the other hand, has only one option to make calls into California regarding absentee ballots (aren't there other primaries coming up?).
(note: the screen grab above was taken after the post was drafted. When I logged back in, I only had two options, but originally had three.)
I'm not sure if any of the Republicans are any better at this. I can't log in to Romney's TMAC, McCain is focused solely on Florida (as he should be), and Rudy doesn't seem to have such a tool (at least, not that I could find quickly, and on the Internet if you can't find it fast, it may as well not be there at all). I tried signing up for a Team Rudy password, but ten minutes later have not received my confirmation/validation e-mail.
Looking just at the Dems, though, at least when I click on Obama's, I get people and a script. When I click on Hillary's, I get a message indicating that "no callees are available". Huh? Are you kidding me? You can't find anyone in California for me to call? What about those other states? You know, the ones voting next Tuesday. With Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado , Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah all picking their nominee next week, you would think the two campaigns would have some folks to call.
Obama does make good use of a tactic we tried with the Bush campaign in 2004 - creating state specific pages with content relevant to the specific location. The bad news is the New Mexico page, a week before their election, is broken (pictured at right). The other states voting next week seem to be fine and contain interesting content. For instance, Obama has done a good job of including the ads they're running in the states. Many campaigns run ads only in one location to talk to specific segments of the population. Pre-YouTube, these ads were often never seen by people in other states. Obama has provided them on a state by state basis providing some nice transparency.
Campaigns can leverage those state urls in ads and drive voters in each state to specific information about the candidate and activities available to help. While campaigns are getting better at including their url in their ads, it can still be a tough sell to get the leadership to include them throughout the entire ad.
In 2004, Kerry's team did a great job of getting the campaign to understand the value of driving traffic with an ever-present address. The GOP still doesn't do that in most cases. They see the url as a distraction from the message. I'd like to see a campaign like Barack's employ not only a steady state url, but also make it specific to the state. An ad with the address BarackObama.com/NewMexico is more likely to grab my attention than simply BarackObama.com. I'm more likely to come back. As long as that ad is running, the state page should also feature more information specific to the ad in question.
The one thing missing
The one thing I really don't see on Obama's site is Obama. I see his picture up top, and I see clips of his speeches in their video content, but I don't see a lot of him making a personal contribution to his site. I'd really like to see him posting regularly, or doing some candid video. I'd really like to see him being as active in his community as he's asking us to be.
This is a complaint that I have of almost all the campaigns. In most cases, the url for these sites is the candidate's name, but that's about the only thing on which they have left their mark. The sites still feel corporate. They still feel more like the website for IBM. Some sort of connection with the candidate is why people are coming to the site, yet the site is often the last place you can find the candidate's imprint.
Overall, I'd give the makeover a "C-". I was a fan of the old site, and just really think they took this in the wrong direction. I didn't test it with a screen reader for 508 compliance, because it was hard enough to read without a screen reader. I can't imagine that would make it easier. The contrast is way off, making a lot of the text hard to read. However, at least that takes your mind off the overwhelming blueness of it all.
The tools he provides are quite good, but the implementation is a bit off. I'd like to see more call opportunities in states voting next week. If there is still no clear nominee next Wednesday, it will become increasingly expensive to run in every state. The Internet could be a powerful tool for both communicating to the states where financial limitations make door-to-door campaigning hard. They can empower their people to be the force multiplier (as they should be doing for next week).
Unfortunately, nobody seems to be doing this, so at least Obama doesn't stand out.