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McCain's Persuasion Strategy

BY Patrick Ruffini | Saturday, March 15 2008

My posts on the Republican online campaign are sometimes prodding, but in at least one area, John McCain laps the competition: using his site to tell his story to first-time visitors and undecided voters.

I was really struck by this visiting the site today, on the 35th anniversary of McCain's release as a POW.

The entire spotlight is given over to a brief, unobtrustive Flash intro on the anniversary. It highlights the Courageous Service video that has been a staple of his campaign and which has been highlighted on the homepage since the fall.

Many political websites try to be news sites and invariably fail because candidate website traffic skews to new and one-time visitors. By highlighting a boilerplate message-of-the-day in the top spot, you miss an opportunity to sell these visitors on the macro-message of the campaign. An emerging best practice is to highlight a news-driven story only when you have something really, really important to say.

What McCain has done well is to control the communications impulse of posting only the latest news up top, and actually use his website as a persuasion vehicle, which is relatively unheard of as far as Presidential campaign web sites go. This is what his homepage looks like on most days:

Notice the links to Courageous Service, About John McCain, Why John McCain, On the Issues. Yes, these links are in the nav too, but highlighting them here drives traffic. Underscoring the persuasion mission, there's an Undecided section that aggregates narrative content and video from throughout the site.  

The Democratic candidates tend towards mobilization rather than persuasion, and their homepage choices have been more prosaic. For instance, an appeal for money and volunteer phone calls dominates Hillary's homepage right now:

And Obama's homepage is the same donation-driven "State of the Race" graphic they've had basically since January (though they did have that awesome One Million graphic that grabbed mucho donations).

By not varying their graphics much, both Clinton and Obama share an insight about repeat traffic with McCain, but I can't help but think that McCain's is more nicely done because it manages to convey substance.

In his homepage choices, McCain seems to be cutting against the grain of conventional wisdom which dictates that political web traffic is dominated by highly motivated activists. Don't forget that in the primary, everyone is potentially an undecided voter. The persuasion strategy was definitely the right approach for the primary. Will it work in a general election where 95%+ of voters won't move?

One obvious thing the McCain camp could do to enhance the activist focus is layer a splash page on top of this (see Obama's here) to get the e-mail addresses and money he needs to compete. Remember that online campaigns are all about e-mail addresses, e-mail addresses, e-mail addresses. Or is the strategy here to go after undecideds figuring that McCain won't get all-out support from the conservative activist base?

Meanwhile, the Obama/Clinton homepages are mostly about money and leave non-donors feeling somewhat empty. This is a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless: raising $90 million in February ain't nothin' to sneeze at. But as the web becomes more and more mainstream, the proportion of undecided voters visiting the sites to make their decisions will only grow. It won't just be about donors and activists. The McCain approach may be on the leading edge of something new.

What do you think?