Canadian political parties upgrade their portals

The Liberals and Conservatives are duking it out over tax cuts and ethics, but an Ottawa research firm on Tuesday said the parties might have a better chance of connecting with voters if they got the customer relationship management and e-commerce components of their Web sites in order.

Hillwatch Inc., which provides Web performance measurement services to public sector and non-profit organizations, offered a benchmark of the main Canadian political parties’ portals in comparison with their counterparts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. The conclusion, as indicated by the title “Still Virtually Lawn Signs,” is that while Canadian parties have improved their use of IT in online campaigns, “it is the right idea but often a case of poor execution – particularly in areas such as use of e-mail for outreach, online donations, messaging and usability,” according to the study. “A certain level of sophistication is missing in the  implementation of the parties’ online strategies. 

Alex Langshur, a principal with Hillwatch’s e-service bureau, said one of the distinctions Hillwatch sees with the U.S. and UK sites is that parties there tend to contact voters only about issues that interest them. Likewise, they know that voters who have made an online contribution in the past might do so again. Canadian party sites, in contrast, tend to use e-mail indiscriminately, in some cases flooding users’ inboxes with news or requests, he said. 

“If you look specifically at the nature of the e-mail – what is contained in each – they’re not targeted,” he said. “There’s no finesse in terms of ‘Well, these people are in our CRM database because they’ve already contributed online.” 

American parties have made the Internet a core strategic component of their campaigns, Langshur said, raising significant sums of money at great speed. Canadian parties, in contrast, have made poor use of the Web for this purpose, particularly micro-donations of five dollars. “There has been very spotty implementation,” he said.

Sandford Borins, a professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Management, pointed out that Canadian political campaigns are short, they are reasonably well-funded because of government contributions to the party, and individuals can still give fairly large amounts of money. U.S. campaigns, on the other hand, are very long, the primaries are in a sense more open than anything in the Canadian system and there are fairly strict limits on large donations, he said, which puts a premium on small donations.

“The system gives the parties incentive to use the Web sites to raise money and communicate with the voters during the long election,” he said. “It’s not a question of technological backwardness or anything like that. The issue is what else is going on in the campaign.”

Hillwatch noted that Canadian parties were taking advantage of several new online forms of collaboration, including blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds. Langshur, however, said U.S. parties have taken collaboration a step further, using their sites to connect like-minded voters around issues such as climate change and organizing “meet-ups” to take action.

Ken Kernaghan, a political science professor at Brock University who is researching online campaigns and political Web sites, said the Bloc Quebecois had an equivalent to meetups with a service called Rendezvous which organized events in half a dozen cities. He agreed, however, that Web sites supporting George W. Bush, John Kerry and Howard Dean used the Web for organizing and campaigning much more.

“What’s the payoff from a large investment in using the IT for online campaigning? I think the investment is not likely to pay off in Canada as much as it would in the U.S,” he said. “My prediction is in the long run the Internet will become a much more important political instrument than it is at the moment.”

Conservative Party spokeswoman Lisa Samson said the key addition to its site this election include photos from leader’s tours and online downloads, a youth site with Weblog updated daily and a media site to assist press with finding candidates with campaign office telephone numbers. Podcasts, Webcasts, blogs, e-cards, and RSS feeds have all been implemented, she added.

“For us, content is very important. It’s the key to informing voters about policies and platform,” Samson said. “Everybody’s moving more and more towards using the Web. For a political party it’s very important that people can get the information they’re looking for . . . it’s just a reality of running a campaign.”

Spokepeople for the Liberal Party did not return calls at press time, but additions to its Web site this election include an online “calculator” which examines the five-year cost of Tory spending promises and a “BlackBerry blog” kept by one of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s speechwriters.

“We want to get away from giving a ranking or a rating. Our approach is very clearly not saying the Liberals get an A and the NDP get an A-minus,” Langshur said. “What we want to say is when you compare like for like across organizations, these are (the trends) we see.”

Canadians vote for their next federal government on Jan. 23.

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