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Rich Media Has Yet to Alter Politics

Despite claims by the Bush and Gore campaigns that the Internet will change politics as we know it, rich media technologies and the Internet in general won’t play a significant role in electing the “leader of the free world” until the majority of the voting public upgrades to something more than a 56K modem.

Not that anyone would know it, judging from the amount of connectivity touted at each of the recent nominating conventions. If it weren’t for the abundance of big hats, bunting and barbecue in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the amount of Internet technology on display at the Republican and Democratic national conventions could have been mistaken for a typical day at COMDEX.

Internet campaign strategists promised it all: 24-hour coverage, live chats, 360-degree cameras, exclusive content and real-time polling. Rich media, they promised, would transform politics. Some claimed the Internet would revolutionize elections to the degree that television did so dramatically in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates.

Unfortunately, Kennedy’s dark suit and Nixon’s five o’clock shadow had a greater effect on national politics in 1960 than the Internet will have, at least until the next general election. And despite the pre-convention Internet hype, the hardworking men and women of America, most of whom still troll the Web with 56K connections, paid little attention to the conventions.

PC Data Online, Reston, VA, and Media Metrix, New York, reported 10 percent to 25 percent drop-offs in traffic to the four major news Web sites — each one devoted extensive coverage to the “e-conventions.” The ratings were so bad that some companies, including virtual Webcam provider Pseudo.com, canceled plans to Webcast the Democratic convention.

This failure of rich media to entice voters may have surprised each party’s Web strategists, but to those who spend their lives building online communities and driving Web site traffic, the writing was on the wall well before the first delegate synchronized her personal digital assistant with a customized convention schedule from a public docking station.

Miscalculation No. 1 was that the convention organizers and the technology companies didn’t allocate sufficient staff to support the chat rooms, news updates and other services that promised to keep convention information flowing 24/7. Without live moderators, participants were left to their own devices, so to speak. The Democratic-sponsored chat rooms were targeted for particular derision when it became apparent that the party luminaries being interviewed on streaming video were not paying attention to any of the questions posted by chat participants. The running commentaries from jaded viewers took on the aura of a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode, with chat users adding dialogue that was typically more entertaining than what the interviewees were saying.

Miscalculation No. 2 came in the form of high-bandwidth technologies deployed by both parties that prevented the majority of registered voters from receiving the full experience. Many interactive features were available only to the small percentage of people with digital subscriber lines or cable modem connections. Getting excited about an interview on healthcare policy is hard enough without having to squint at a two-inch window of streaming video that hopped and skipped like an old episode of “Max Headroom.”

If political strategists want to appeal to the mass audience of Web surfers in the future, they’ll need to spend less time playing with bandwidth-hogging, eye candy gizmos and more time tailoring their presentations and content toward low-bandwidth connections. According to one report, 34.4 million Web surfers now access the Internet at 56kbps or less. A little more than 5 percent of consumers have access to DSL, cable or other high-bandwidth connectivity.

Projections call for the number of dial-up connections to actually increase during the next three years, though broadband will continue to make inroads and account for about 40 percent of the electorate connectivity by the next presidential election in 2004.

As badly as both parties overestimated the power of interactivity at the conventions, they are making up for lost time by using the Internet in other ways. A quick look at the official Bush and Gore Web sites shows viewers relatively well-designed and quick-loading sites. Kudos to the Bush site for the constantly changing call-to-action window. Not surprisingly, each site offers visitors the opportunity to read up on the candidates; e-mail information to friends, family and the editors of local newspapers; register to vote; volunteer on the campaign; and most importantly, make a financial contribution.

Any technology, Internet or otherwise, that increases contributions, is guaranteed to be warmly embraced by campaign strategists. Trey Richardson, CEO of online fundraising company eContributor, Washington, reported recently that online political contributions jumped more than 100 percent in the weeks leading up to the GOP convention. Farai Chideya, editor at PopAndPolitics.com, reported that Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, raised $18,000 per hour during a period in early February. Any technology that can demonstrate a quantifiable return on investment of this magnitude is guaranteed for quick adoption by money-hungry campaigns.

The Bush and Gore sites offer a variety of media-rich content, primarily in the form of archived video clips of recent speeches, online chats and a live Web cam of Gore’s headquarters in Nashville, TN. But for the most part, the sites are optimized for dial-up access.

To their credit, both sites offer some content in Spanish. The Bush site again wins points for offering a text version of some content for those who must read up on the issues using their wireless PDAs or Web-enabled cell phones.

Still, the bottom line for providers of rich media technologies is that campaigns will use them if they provide media attention (as demonstrated with the conventions) or if they help raise money. In the short term, look for increased use of HTML e-mail, which offers near-instantaneous voter feedback, but don’t expect widespread adoption of other media-rich and bandwidth-intensive technologies until Bush or Gore is seeking a second term in office.

• Jim Graham is co-founder and director of communications at KickFire, San Jose, CA, a developer of Web-based software for enterprise marketing departments. Reach him at [email protected]

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