Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Internet Campaigning 2009: Leap Forward in Quality, Running the Spot in User Statistics

Barack Obama’s legendary campaign in last year’s race for the White House was called the first ‘internet election’, as it mobilized volunteers at grass-roots level and raised the bulk of funds via the digital war room ‘myBarackObama.com’. It was on myBO, where the enthusiasm for America’s first internet president took its starting point. Hence, German campaign managers have been trying hard to copy Obama’s successful online strategy. They had a long way to go: In 1998, they were addressed as “Neanderthals of cyberspace” (Foerster, U.: Neandertaler im Cyberspace, in: Der Spiegel, September 28, 1998) as their first attempts to internet campaigning went awry. Still in 2005 online campaigning was pale in comparison to TV ads or hustings. Campaign homepages presented mostly written information on candidates and political programs; top-down communication was standard.

In the 09-battle for the German Bundestag, however, they manage a great leap forward:
The ‘big five’ of Germany’s party scene (CDU, SPD, Bündnis90/Die Grünen, FPD, Die Linke) attach decisive importance to the internet, they allocate more funds and campaign staff to the digital channel. They set up a complex website architecture on the internet, reaching out from party homepages to mirco target groups via Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc. and even operating own social networks.

Angela Merkel on Facebook

Networking platform of Bündnis90/Die Grünen

Their campaigns offer the full range of up-to-date multimedia applications, such as vodcasts and animated design.

SPD-Homepage featuring the blogspot of chancellor candidate Steinmeier

Typically, they engage in a web 2.0-mode of communication, publish laid-back blogs and stage private life on Twitter. User generated content is welcomed on their websites, too. Interactivity rules, actually: Volunteers at grass-roots level are involved in program debates, virtual testimonials, mobile campaign reports, and mailings to political opponents. Fund raising plays a prominent role on the internet as well. On- and offline campaigning is knit together: Web volunteers are supposed to support their party demonstrating or positioning election posters in real life.

Comparing the performance of the above mentioned German parties,
Bündnis90/Die Grünen clearly gain the lead in the internet election. They strike the right note in addressing the digital natives and prospective voters likewise. Their website architecture comes as close as possible to the single point of entry-benchmark, their participatory offers hit the creative mark, grass roots are effectively instructed. The party’s roots in the bottom-up and participatory environmental movement may partly account for this success.

Concerning adequate style of communication and mobilization of volunteers FDP and Die Linke are scoring well, too; while their homepages rather relate to web 1.0, multimedia-based content is relatively scarce.

CDU and SPD, in turn, have a tough time adjusting to the style of web 2.0 – their language is sometimes too chumming up, sometimes too authoritarian. Moreover, the grand coalition parties suffer from the resentment of the digital community caused by unpopular internet legislation (‘Netzsperrengesetz’). On their homepages, however, the two parties offer a top-notch multimedia-based, dynamic design; they display the full scope of innovative participatory options. Moreover, they strike a balance between specific targeting of voters and limited points of entry.

Notwithstanding the great leap forward in quality of online communication, the current efforts will not make history as the first German ‘internet election’ as the response of voters is only marginal: None of the five parties has attracted more than 25.000 supporters on external social networks, no party-owned platform counts more than 35.000 volunteers. Only 20 percent of politically interested German users are planning to visit the homepage of a party or politician before Election Day. Compared to an electorate of roughly 60 million and an audience of fourteen million for the chancellor candidates’ TV debate the online campaigns won’t carry too much weight for the election’s outcome. In fact, the internet comes in second as a medium for political information. However, German users do not stop by campaigning spots, they still rely on websites of newspapers and TV stations or chat politics with their friends in social networks. In short, German parties cannot do without online campaigning in 2009, but users can do on the internet without the parties.

For more information about Online Campaigning in the battle for the German Bundestag see also the respective CAP Working Paper (German version available only).

--Kathi Wimmer

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