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Practitioner's Toolbox: One Political Startup's Efforts To Engage Potential Supporters Online

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, February 26 2014

Pennsylvania businessman Tom Wolf's 'about' page uses parallax scrolling to lead the audience through the story of his life

How do you introduce a political candidate with absolutely no name recognition to the public, and convince them that this is someone who would do a good job as their governor?

This is the conundrum that has faced Pennsylvania businessman Tom Wolf and his media team in the past year since he announced that he was running as a Democratic candidate for Governor.

Wolf, a Pennsylvania-born businessman and former member of Democratic Governor Ed Rendell's cabinet, is one of eight Democrats who hopes to win the primary on May 20th. Just over three months ago, only five percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed by Harper Polling said they would vote for Wolf. As of Monday, that percentage rocketed to 40 percent, catapulting Wolf into the lead against U.S. House Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.)

Democrats are hoping that they'll be able to wrest the governorship away from Republican Tom Corbett, who as of last November was the most unpopular governor in the nation, according the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling.

Of course, injecting $10 million of your own money into the campaign through a set of television ads, and targeted online marketing helps. But big television buys don't always automatically sway voters, as the dramatic spending by Super PACs in the 2012 presidential elections illustrated. Wolf's campaign began its television campaign at the end of January.

But his digital team has made a concerted effort to use the Web to engage potential supporters as well. One of their methods was to use a Web design technique called parallax scrolling on Wolf's 'About' page. The technique makes the text and other material in the foreground of a page move at a different rate from background images, prompting users to have to actively scroll through to get through its contents. The idea behind it is similar to the thought process behind the design of multi-media exhibits at museums, where curators bring their subject matters to life through immersive experiences -- rather than simply presenting visitors with big blocks of dense text that forces them to make more of an effort to read through.

"We wanted to give the audience the feeling that they’re controlling the experience, that we’re not just giving them a blob of text, and expecting them to read it. We’re giving them an experience that they can manipulate on their own," said Chase Martyn, a principal of Groundswell Public Strategies.

Visitors to Wolf's biography on his campaign Web site are greeted with what looks like a photo album that unfurls to simply and quickly convey the trajectory of his life. After they've scrolled through the images and reach the end of the page, they're asked to join the campaign by signing up with their e-mail addresses,names and zip codes, and then to immediately share the page with their friends on their social networks. The campaign then also asks them immediately why they're supporting the candidate, and how else they might be able to take action -- whether it be volunteering, canvassing neighborhoods, or making phone calls to friends and acquaintances.

The impetus behind the extra coding and engagement effort on the candidate's biography page was initially a result of the site's traffic patterns, says Wolf's Digital Director Ryan Alexander. The 'about' page has consistently been the second-most visited portion of the site, as voters try to figure out who the little-known Wolf is. So it seemed like a wasted opportunity not to try and persuade all those visitors to become more involved in the campaign.

Scrolling parallax has been a bit of a fad in Web design circles in the past couple of years. In the world of politics, readers memorably saw it used by former Republican House member Pete Hoekstra when his digital team The Prosper Group created a controversial microsite attacking Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)

Industrial designer Linda Dong's "Dangers of Fracking" Web site is another great example of how parallax scrolling can guide audiences through complex stories. The site, a personal project of Dong's, explains in a step-by-step fashion how the process of extracting natural gas out of the ground can be extremely resource intensive.

Like everything else, the design technique does have its downsides. It can negatively impact search engine rankings of a site, and doesn't always work in the desired fashion on mobile devices. In the Wolf campaign's case, the background images are a blur when viewed through Safari on an iPad.

Groundswell's Martyn says he's aware of these issues, and that is why the campaign only deployed this design decision to the site's one particular section. And, he said, the campaign was caught off guard by the amount of traffic coming through on mobile devices, but they're working to fix that oversight.