It takes a cyber-village

Democrats and Republicans appeal to supporters with different Web tactics.

Democrats and Republicans appeal to supporters with different Web tactics

OK, come clean. You’ve changed the channel when your public TV station has asked for money, haven’t you? In turn, I’ll confess that I have turned the dial when NPR holds its pledge drive.

And we’re not alone. Who among us hasn’t groaned when someone is asking us for our hard-earned money, even if our kids do love Sesame Street?

So when the shoe is on the other foot, and our nonprofit needs donations or volunteers, we might shudder at the idea of asking for support.

When it comes to charities, fund-raising campaigns are a no-brainer: Just tell the stories of the people who will benefit from the donations: the elderly, the ill, the underprivileged.

But how do you ask for cash when your nonprofit is a huge national—or global—organization that might seem like it’s flush with dough? And how do you encourage volunteers to get involved and support your cause?

In this election year, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are answering those questions. But in some subtly different ways.

RNC entertains, entices voters

When you land on the home page of the Republican National Committee, you might think you’ve landed on the wrong Web site. Who’s that there, front and center? Ah, yes. It’s Sen. Barack Obama. The other party’s candidate.

For a political party that likes to call itself conservative, the Republicans have a Web site that is anything but. Sure, some of the content is serious. For example, at press time, the RNC’s home page featured several rotating images:

  • Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain with his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin
  • A U.S. map with a call to action for the Hurricane Gustav relief effort
  • A link to MyGOP, a social networking tool
  • A link to the latest news from the Republican National Convention
  • A signup area for convention-watching parties

There’s even a link called “Meet Barack Obama,” which takes you to a page with the subhead “Learn the Real Story About Illinois’ Freshman Senator.”

But there’s something else: an invitation to “Explore Barack Obama’s Social Network,” which sends visitors to a fake Facebook page. That page lists more than 15 friends, all of whom have skeletons in their closets, thereby making Obama look bad.

There’s also a ticker with the phrase “Time Since Biden’s Last Gaffe,” with the elapsed time shown in days, hours, minutes and seconds.

And let’s not forget the Barack Obama Audacity Watch, a compilation of instances when Obama has made statements or done things that someone at the RNC found impudent.

Beyond that bit of amusement, visitors can also choose from more ways to participate. Here are some of the links on the home page:

  • “Take Action!” helps citizens do things like register to vote, sign petitions, and write or call their elected representatives.
  • “Sign up for Mobile Updates” allows people to get news and alerts via text message.
  • “Vote Fraud Updates” lets people report voter fraud.
  • “Shop the GOP Store” offers T-shirts, hats, key chains and other Republican paraphernalia such as stuffed elephants.
  • “Join the Official RNC Facebook Group” helps voters connect with other Republicans.

All in all, the site offers various paths of entry if someone wants to help elect a candidate, including—let’s not forget—how to donate. Although the request for donations is not as obvious as on the Democratic National Committee’s Web site, the home page does include a link to a donation page.

There are a few problems with the site, however. For one thing, the home page is rather cluttered.

Beyond that, there’s no obvious way to get back to the home page once you dig into the site. Some parts of the site use a “bread crumb” approach that shows where the visitor is, within the site. However, the trail on pages such as the “In the News” page is backwards.

Instead of showing the hierarchy from left to right, with “Home” on the left and the specific page on the right, the page you’re viewing is at left, with “Home” on the right.

DNC keeps it simple

The Democratic National Committee gets right to the point on its home page. The page changes often, sometimes on a daily basis, but the core content remains focused on getting people involved.

In late August, during the Democratic Convention, the DNC’s home page focused on getting campaign contributions. In fact, a request for donations appeared right below a picture of Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden, just above the fold.

“Join the Campaign—Make a Contribution,” the headline urged. The rest of the page consisted of a simple contribution form that made it easy for people to make donations.

Just after the convention, the home page was laid out simply. A photo of Obama dominated the page, and the text below the photo read, “Join Us: Help Elect Barack Obama.” Visitors to the site then had two choices: they could either click on a link that said “Join the Team” or one called “Contribute.”

The simplicity of the page could be called understated. But the site itself is, well, a bit lackluster next to the hijinks on the RNC Web site. The DNC’s site is very all-American, with its red, white and blue colors, in contrast to the RNC’s color scheme, which is mostly red and black.

The Democratic Party does offer different options for those who want to become part of the action. The “Get Involved” heading includes choices such as the following:

  • Register to Vote
  • Organize Your Neighborhood
  • Meet Barack Obama

Visitors to the site can also choose from other participation options farther down the page.

  • People: helps voters find local Democrats
  • Fundraising: contains tools so people can create their own fund-raising campaigns
  • Blogs: a jumping-off point for either reading or creating issues-based blogs

The DNC site doesn’t include any fake Facebook or MySpace pages. And there’s no “gaffe meter” for Governor Palin. But there is a link to a section called “Meet John McCain” that outlines McCain’s position on various issues, from civil rights to taxes. The “Meet John McCain” page also offers up some videos under the heading “Flipper TV.”

There’s also something called “The Daily Flipper,” which includes the subhead “Read what the Republicans Wish You Wouldn’t.” It’s a list of links to examples of McCain’s misstatements and missteps, along with gaffes by the other former Republican presidential candidates.

But what if your nonprofit isn’t part of politics? You can still take a page from the tactics that the RNC and DNC use on their Web sites.

  • Offer different ways for your supporters to connect with your organization, whether that’s subscribing to e-mail updates or writing letters to their local newspapers.
  • Include donation information on every page.
  • If you are competing other organizations, find a way to highlight what’s distinctive about your organization.
  • Update content as frequently as you can.
  • Run photos whenever possible.
  • Use humor, if it’s appropriate for the audience.

If you’re effective, your supporters won’t tune out the next time you ask them to get involved. As for me, I should probably start putting my money where my mouth is. I mean, who can resist Elmo?

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