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The Democratic Alliance (DA), a local opposition party, has impressed with their new online strategy. Clearly inspired by Barack Obama’s web innovation, the political party has launched two websites, although only just squeaking in two months before national elections kick off. The sites are: a social media-type campaigning site, “Contribute to change“, (built on BuddyPress by Lightspeed) and the official site, built by World Wide Creative, a Cape Town web dev house.
I was impressed that the DA specifically invited bloggers to their website launch event, which I unfortunately could not make because I was doing my regular Thursday Cape Talk slot.
Inspired by Obama
The DA sites have Obama written all over them, both in design and functionality. Considering that Barack Obama’s campaign website was by far the most sophisticated political website the world had ever seen, it’s not a bad model to emulate either.
I’d been previously criticised for what was deemed to be premature criticism of the DA’s rather poor previous “temporary” web presence (it was a blog). But these fresh sites are not only a dramatic improvement, but raise the bar for online politics in this country. After the ANC’s new site I’d become rather depressed about what we had to offer here in terms of web innovation. The ANC’s attempt at an innovative online social media site, myANC, missed the mark. You could see there was an effort to think in a new way, but the execution and end result was pretty basic and naive (Forums are 1990s guys). Apparently myANC was built and managed by Ogilvy, who appear to be green when it comes to web strategy and development. (In fact, based on my experience, the last place I would go for a sophisticated web strategy is a traditional agency. This is where I would go.)
So back to the DA site. The DA’s site has the same silky, blue tones as Obama. The navigation and look and feel is professional and clear. The “Contribute to Change” not only sounds like Obama, but looks like it was almost taken from his site (similar design, font). (I know he’s an inspirational character, but do we have to rip off his site? What about some Africa theming — why are we even using the same US presidential font?)
Packed with social media functionality
The functionality is innovative and clever, and it’s a good job. The DA site allows you to do a couple of things:
- Donate: Supporters can donate online in much the same way they could on Obama’s site. Pity they never advertised a premium SMS shortcode number with the credit card payment option that they have. Micropayments via SMS are key revenue spinners on the web because they’re so easy to do. Credit cards are a pain, but most importantly for these elections — not everyone has got ’em.
- Blogs: Users can sign up for a DA blog, and begin writing and campaigning.
- Social network: There’s functionality allowing users to build a social network and recruit friends, although the main option encourages users to enter their friend email addresses manually. The second option allows users to upload their contact lists, although I can see many users getting stuck as it really does not have enough explanation or is clear about the format. The site, critically, does not allow contact or social network mining — which allows you to add your contacts and build a social network effortlessly and dynamically. In this busy information-laden world, users don’t use functionality that takes a great deal of effort or too many steps.
- The “spread the word” functionality is particularly nifty and innovative. The DA have pre-populated fields where users can select multiple newspapers, talkshows and blogs to email or SMS with user letters or messages. The site automatically funnels users’ messages to the correct email addresses or SMS numbers. It’s innovative. I like the fact they’ve included blogs too (hopefully not this one!), however “argus.co.za” and “nytimes.com” are listed as blogs. (Que?)
- Events: Much like the Obama site you can create your own campaign events and attend others — and market them to your friend contact list.
- Groups etc: There is other standard SN functionality like creating and joining groups, messaging, profiles — which work nicely on the site.
Where they missed the mark
Mobile Considering how important mobile is in this country (double the desktop web audience), you would think it would be a key part of the site? I don’t see mobile pushed prominently on their site and had to be told about it: mobi.da.org.za. It’s almost an after thought… more of a brochure mobile site than a dedicated social media, campaigning site adapted for mobile. Also not much work with SMS, suited particularly to an emerging market audience. I think they missed a few tricks here.
Language: If the DA are going to ever shed their image of a party focused on the suburban, white middle-class electorate into more of a broad-based party appealing to all, I would have taken language very, very seriously. You can see they’ve thought about it: there’s a language bar on the main site, but it sadly doesn’t work (“no language options available”) and the option is not available on their key campaigning site or mobile site. Pity.
Social media links: I don’t see their presences on various social media sites (You Tube, Facebook, Twitter etc) advertised anywhere prominently?
Timing: These sites are being launched pretty late in the day, with just two months to go until the vote. Is there enough time for them to be effective?
But despite these crits, it’s a good effort and by far the best political website I’ve seen anywhere on the continent. I look forward to seeing and hearing if their upgraded online presence has any bearing on the success or otherwise of the party, like it so influenced the Obama campaign.
NOTE: Since writing this post I’ve received quite a few idiotic emails. Please be clear that by writing this independent piece I am not in any way affiliated to the DA, nor any political party for that matter. In fact, I couldn’t care less about their policies. I’m not even registered to vote (which I admit is very slack of me, but it’s been a busy year). My interest in this subject stems from this particular political party’s innovative use of social media (an interest area of mine), which prompted an analysis, independent of any ideology. So to the few out there not well-versed in the art of intelligent debate and comment, before you write to me: Stop. Think. Reconsider. Thanks for your co-operation.