With an increasingly Internet-savvy electorate, politicians can make the most of new media to connect with their constituents or potential voters. But to do so, politicians must ensure that voters can easily find them online and must control their online brand.
With a well-run Internet campaign, voters will be able to find information, positions, and statements from the candidate; connect with the candidate through social media such as Facebook; interact; organize and donate.
Domain names are the gateway to these activities.
Can Voters Find Your Political Website?
If a voter is interested in learning about a political candidate, that candidate does not want the voter deterred in any way from finding them online. The following video excerpt from MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which aired on June 16, 2011, illustrates the problems candidates can have if they do not have a good domain name and do not acquire likely domain names as well. In the segment, the liberal talk show host highlighted the websites of 2012 presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich. (Editor’s note: Since the segment aired, the content and/or owners of some of the domain names mentioned in the video have changed.)
Although a reasonable person would expect jonhuntsman.com to be the candidate’s official site, it instead shows an outside party’s content – content that could hurt Huntsman’s political image and thus his chances in the primaries. Jonhuntsman2012.com and huntsman2012.com, other obvious URL choices, are also dead ends, simply displaying offers to sell the domain name. Eventually Maddow discovers she must use jonhuntsmanjr.com (not jonhuntsmanjunior.com) to reach the candidate’s website. Had she been less persistent, she might never have seen it at all.
Those false starts and stumbling blocks reflect negatively on the campaign. The candidate appears to have no Internet savvy because, as Maddow said, “They have left all their likely URLs dangling all over the place.” The voter’s first impression has been a bad one.
Cover All Your Bases and Constituents
Finding politicians’ websites or remembering their URLs should not be a challenge. As the Jon Huntsman example illustrated, a website that is difficult to find reflects poorly on the candidate.
Besides registering the most obvious domain name – a politician’s name – for their primary site, politicians should buy all variations of that domain name, such as common misspellings or their name with a middle initial.
Domain names are inexpensive – they can be registered online in a few minutes for only about $10 each per year. Given the low cost, candidates would be well advised to buy as many domain names as possible as soon as they know they will be entering into politics.
The domain name variations can point visitors to a single political website so only one site needs to be developed and maintained. This way, no matter how voters or constituents might think of or spell a politician’s name, they will be able to easily get to the politician’s official site.
Let’s say a voter wants to connect with fictitious candidate Robert D. Kelley. Imagine that voter trying to guess Kelley’s URL, or remembering (or misremembering) it from a TV ad.
Following are a few “likely URLs” that voters might try, similar to Rachel Maddow’s attempts to find Jon Huntsman online:
- The candidate’s name: robertkelley.com and robertdkelley.com
- Variants on the name: bobkelley.com and bobdkelley.com, and, if he is often referred to with a junior suffix, versions with both “jr” and “junior” in the name
- Common mistakes in spelling: robertkelly.com (In Huntsman’s case, the campaign would do well to register johnhuntsman.com; instead, however, the domain name resolves to a parking page.)
- Bumper sticker messages: kelley2012.com, kelleyforsenate.com, kelleyformayor.com, etc.
These examples are a start when considering domain name variations. Common sense and a little imagination can help a politician determine a complete list.
Building and Controlling an Online Brand
While owning the “likely URLs” allows voters to find a candidate from many domain names, a campaign will not, as previously noted, have a website for each. Campaign ads can direct voters to a single domain name, and automatic redirects can funnel those who type an alternate URL back to the primary domain.
For example, the campaign for President Barack Obama owns barackobama.com and obama.com. Barackobama.com is Obama’s primary website and is the URL listed in campaign ads. Obama.com, when typed in a browser, redirects the user to barackobama.com. In that way, a domain name can serve as a brand for a politician’s online presence.
The Newt Gingrich campaign offers an example of a failure in branding, as described in the second half of the Rachel Maddow Show excerpt. For Gingrich’s online brand, the campaign selected newtexplore2012.com, probably a questionable choice. Even worse, Gingrich did not fully control this brand. Voters would be likely to remember his URL as explorenewt2012, but the Gingrich campaign did not purchase that variant. Instead, someone else registered the domain name and used it to mock the candidate.
That type of hostile ownership, besides being embarrassing to the candidate, is an exception to the rule that domain names are generally low in cost and quick to acquire. If someone else owns a domain name, it can become expensive and time-consuming to acquire. The owner can name any price. Although in some cases it may be possible to take control of a domain through a lawsuit or the ICANN dispute process, that will also be costly, most importantly in time. It is better to take control of all possible domain names early in a campaign or in a politician’s career.
Politicians Should Start with the Domain Name
Savvy use of the Internet must be a key component of almost any political campaign. An easy-to-find, well-branded and well-constructed website can be a powerful tool for politicians – a place for sharing information, building a public image and collecting campaign donations. And the whole process starts with a domain name.
[Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson]
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