The Internet as a political campaign medium

Focus group interviews: The Internet as a political campaign medium

Park, Hyun Soon

The 2000 U.S. presidential election is remarkable as the first online election campaign1 although the use of the Internet for political campaigns began earlier. For instance, Jesse Ventura utilized the Internet for the 1998 race to the governor’s office in Minnesota in an online campaign that proved successful. Through the 2000 presidential online campaigns, the World Wide Web (WWW) showed its potential as an effective political campaign tool. It gave presidential candidates a multi-faceted form of communication, primarily involving persuasion to vote for them. Practitioners not only raised money online, but also attracted volunteers and involved people in political campaigns through interactive web sites.ii

With distinct capabilities surpassing those offered by the traditional media, the Internet has become a most potent political tool. From the public relations perspective, presidential candidates can gain almost unlimited access and visibility and maintain total control of the message at less expense. Interactive web sites allow candidates to finely target an audience and communicate with them directly through direct e-mail. They involve real time interaction and a sense of community. They are dynamic, not static. Step-by-step on the campaign trail, candidates have been using the Internet to build relationships with voters through symmetric two-way communications, especially, with younger voters.

Young people are interesting and important audiences for political candidates because, although they tend to be less interested and involved in political matters, they in the future will play important roles in society and will have considerable influence then. If the young can be moved to action, there would be significant differences in the polls. These young people use the Internet as a main source of information and as a medium of entertainment. Internet characteristics suit young people’s needs and lifestyles and thus the Internet appeals to them as an alternative to traditional media. For these reasons, political candidates want to focus on young people on the Internet.

To date, how these new media characteristics can be utilized for an effective political campaign, especially with regard to young voters, has not been scrutinized.iii Few academic studies driven by media theories have examined the effectiveness of these new media characteristics on the political campaign.iv There are only a few reviews about the candidates’ web sites in trade magazines,v despite theoretically based academic research being in high demand.vi

Based on this notion, this study aims to explore the possibilities of successful political campaigns through the WWW by investigating the content and features of the presidential candidates’ web sites and their roles in building relationships with, and motivating, young voters.

This study begins with a review of the possibility of the WWW as a political campaign medium, offers results of focus group interviews with young voters in the Mid West, and discusses practical implications from the public relations perspective.

Literature Review

The WWW as a Political Campaign Medium. The web was first used for political campaigns in 1994.Vii McKeown and Flowman’sviii theory-based research suggested that this relatively new medium was an effective tool for political campaigns with advantages over other conventional media. In addition, Holdrenix noted that in the 1992 presidential elections, voters searched for new ways to learn about candidates and looked for information unfiltered by the traditional mass media. She defined four areas where the WWW excels over other traditional media as a medium for political campaigns. First is the low cost of entry into the media, as opposed to television advertising. Second, costs associated with the web do not increase with the number of people reached. Third, the format is interactive, so candidates can involve voters in the process. Fourth, natural communities of interest about campaigns already exist on the web.x

Additional advantages for candidates in setting up web sites are: interactive campaign headquarters that can be accessed anytime by anyone with a modemxi; an inexpensive, direct way to engage in two-way communication with votersxii; and television-like graphics at a fraction of the cost.xiii

Furthermore, although voters’ use of the WWW to gather information for voting decisions is difficult to track, candidates who want to communicate with this audience have an inexpensive and interactive way to do so on the WWW. Browningxiv stated that the audience on the web is the one candidates want to reach: affluent, younger voters who are interested in politics. Rubel stated that “Web sites are geared towards new and younger voters who are less likely to receive their information from newspapers, TV and radio.xv Getting young voters involved and motivated to participate in political campaigns through the WWW may become another point that public relations practitioners should take into consideration in establishing strategic political campaign planning.

The WWW and Young Voters. The 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign established the Internet as a major source of election information for voters. The WWW seems to affect younger people age 18-29 more than other voters. According to survey results conducted during October and November 2000 by the Pew Research Center,xvi younger people were shown to be more likely to consume online political news than those of other age groups. Specifically, those aged 18-29 are more than twice as likely as those over 50 to get news about the election online (25% vs. 10%); this may be driven largely by the fact that a much higher proportion of young people use the Internet in the first place. And 43% of respondents said that online election news affected vote choice.

As shown in several survey results, the Internet played a considerable role as a source of election campaign information and showed its potential to affect voting decision, especially those of younger people.

Research Question. Given Internet’s advantages and its effect on younger voters in the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, how presidential candidates strategically used the WWW to reach and motivate young voters and, consequently, how young voters perceived and used presidential candidates’ web sites, should be examined. To scrutinize these aspects, the following research question was proposed.

RQ. Were content and features effective in building a relationship with young voters? What did prospective young voters think about specific content and features on presidential candidates’ official campaign web sites?

To address the research question, we tried to develop an interview scheme for focus group interviews based on the media richness theory, one of the mass media theories pertaining especially well to new media. And then focus group interviews were conducted to gain prospective young voters’ reactions to, and perceptions of, specific content and features on presidential candidates’ web sites.

Focus Group Interviews

Exploring Young Voters’ Perception. Focus group interviews were used to examine people’s perceptions of, and attitudes towards, specific features of the 2000 U.S. presidential candidates’ campaign web sites. Three focus groups were interviewed on October 24, 26 and 27, 2000. A total of twenty four students (eight for each session) participated in the discussions. All participants were undergraduates enrolled in introductory advertising classes at a Mid Western university. Participants’ majors include advertising, communication and journalism. Six are male, eighteen female, one Asian, four African Americans, the remainder Caucasian, all between twenty one and twenty five, i.e. of voting age for the election.

Each focus group session was performed in two steps: (1) participants navigated the two presidential candidates’ web sites in a computer lab for approximately half an hour. While staying on the web sites, they were encouraged to write down anything they noticed, whether interesting or problematic, so that they could refer to it during discussion. (2) Upon completion of the lab session, participants had a discussion in a focus group room wherein a one-way mirror and cameras were available. The discussions were video taped. Each session was an hour long. The moderator led the discussion via questions developed for the study (as appear in Appendix A). Moderator and researchers had a post-group discussion after each session for the purpose of improving the questioning route.

Developing Interview Scheme: Media Richness Theory. Based on Media Richness Theory, an interview scheme was developed. As suggested in media richness theory, the broad categories include (1) interactivity, (2) multiple communication cues, (3) personalization and (4) ease of navigation.

Interactivity refers to the characteristic of the web enabling candidates to accommodate mutual understanding and build a relationship with voters, which distinguishes it from other traditional media. In a political campaign context, this allows individuals to access the information they need, to express their ideas and opinions to candidates, and easily to participate in the political campaign online and offline. Immediacy of feedback is important for this symmetric two-way communication from a media richness theoretical perspective. Features enhancing interactivity between the presidential candidates and voters included real-time questions and answers, online polls, bulletin boards and chat rooms.

The World Wide Web has the ability to provide multiple cues for communication. A variety of verbal and nonverbal cues are an important characteristic of rich media. The web provides texts, photos, audio and video. In political campaign web sites, a considerable number of audio (e.g., speech) and video (e.g., TV commercials) clips are available.

Personalization allows people easily to access the information they are interested in and which to them seems relevant. Regional information, downloadable information kits and online newsletter subscriptions are examples of the features helping people obtain a sense of personalization.

Ease of navigation was added, although it is not directly suggested by media richness theory, because it has appeared to be a significant feature for Internet users. Importantly, it is also closely related to some of the other categories. For example, the third category, a focus of communication on personal interests, is regarded as directly related to ease of navigation in the online environment. That is, if people are easily able to navigate the site and locate information only interesting to them, the experience would satisfy the need for personalization. Site maps, menus of options and search engines are typical of features making navigation easier.

Recently Internet also was considered in the media richness scale. Although several studiesxvii reported inconsistent results, most recent studiesxviii suggest that the Internet contains a high degree of media richness relative to other mass media. This means that the Internet has considerable capacity of mutual understanding and relationship building between senders and receivers. However, even though the Internet is said to have a high degree of communication capacity with users, which means high degree of media richness, little is known about how people perceive of and interact with the features and function the Internet provides.

Given this notion, this exploratory study tried to examine how people, especially young voters, perceive of these features of candidates’ web sites, thus endeavored to look at the potential of the WWW as an effective political campaign medium.

Focus Groups Results. In the initial stage, participants were asked about their interest or involvement in the 2000 presidential election. The range of their general interest in the election appeared to be wide, from low to high, depending on the individual. The participants’ political orientation or preference for political party appeared to be balanced. That is, half of them expressed themselves as Republicans whereas the other half described themselves as Democrats, although this does not imply their agreement with every position either party takes on the issues. The participants stated their political orientation and interest varies according to the issues. The participants were interested in a variety of issues such as abortion, social security, taxes, education, health care, environment and the economy.

The major sources of information for participants regarding this presidential campaign were mass media, mostly newspapers and TV. Although most of them also discussed the campaign with family and friends, they rarely used the Internet as a source of political information. None of them visited the presidential candidates’ or other relevant web sites before the focus groups. The participants spent an average of an hour on the Internet (except emailing) in a typical day. All the participants used the Internet primarily for informative purposes and secondarily for entertainment.

To understand the participants’ perceptions of and reactions to the specific features on presidential candidates’ web sites, participants’ comments are categorized according to the following topics, and analyzed. After identifying the key findings, several specific comments reflecting the central ideas are quoted.

Interactivity. Features for interactivity such as a “real time question and answer,” “email or contact us,” and “Town Hall meeting” did not appear to make the participants feel like they interacted with the candidate or those involved in the campaign. They suspected that the candidates would answer questions in an instant mail format. This is partly because of their skepticism about the politicians and the medium. That is, people tend not to take information provided by politicians at face value, and they do not have a feeling of instant interaction because they cannot physically see the person they interact with. Most participants expressed their doubts about feedback information and its source, as follows:

“I am sure that if I email on the sites, I’ll get some response. But I don’t believe I can chat with the candidate. I don’t think that he actually sits down and answers questions. This distrust kind of prevents me from taking actions.”

“I wouldn’t even trust the people asking the questions, twenty or thirty people in the campaign headquarters read every single question and review the list of questions, then they filter out questions that they want to answer and fit to their purposes.”

These skeptical reactions to the interactivity features yield a useful insight for public relations practitioners to improve the web as a political medium. Putting technical features for interactivity on the web do not guarantee a sense of genuine involvement, mutual understanding, and good relationship with political candidates. To enhance the effectiveness of interactivity features as a relationship building tactic, it should be executed in association with additional human touches or humanizing factors to assure voters that the candidate is really concerned about the questions they ask and will take some time to examine those questions.

Personalization. Most of the participants mentioned that what they liked about the web sites were personalization features containing specific issue categories tailored to their own interests, and specific information categories pertaining to each state. They liked the idea that they can read only the information they are interested in and get the information tailored to that which they feel is relevant. The following comments highlight the participants’ feeling of personalization:

“I liked the feature “Issues,” in both sites. I think that it would be a good feature to offer because people can find out the relevant information more easily and access it directly if they are looking for certain specific issues. People do not have to look through all the issues they are not interested in.”

“I thought that the “State” section in Gore’s site was cool. When I chose “Michigan,” his campaign activities related to Michigan and pictures taken in Michigan came up. The information tailored to my state made me feel like that he cared about my region.”

“When I read a message specifically relevant to my interests, I feel like that they were talking to me personally. I feel like I am treated as an individual.”

“If you go to the “voter outreach” section, you’ll find a lot of information about how Al Gore is fighting for very different groups such as Asian Pacific ethnicity group, gay and lesbian, and young people, you name it, which makes, I think, the web site personalized.”

As shown in these comments, it appears important to segment key target publics and to tailor messages for each of the key audiences, thus increasing the sense of personalization of the web sites. The sense of personalization of the web sites may be generated by making people select information for their wants, customizing the web sites to their convenience, and making each feel like he or she is viewed by candidates as a significant voter. When people feel they have been treated as significant voters, their levels of involvement and trust in candidates and issues may be enlarged.

Ease of Navigation. Because all our subjects have had previous experience with the Internet, none of the participants expressed difficulties in navigating the web sites. Menu bars and search functions appeared to help the participants to navigate web sites more easily. Some key features for ease of navigation are identified in the following comments:

“I liked the “Search” in Gore’s site. I could type in issues I am interested in and access them easily.”

“I think that the “Menus” in Gore’s site was good. It was pretty easy to go back and forth and I could go to any page regardless of wherever I was with the menu.”

“I would be lost in Gore’s site. So many things are there. That’s why I like Bush’s site better. It is simple and easy to read and get to issues.”

To retain voters much longer on their web sites, features for easy navigation should be considered.

A Variety of Communication Cues. All agreed that many audio and video features made their stay on the sites more fun. It is important because these features help the sites be more interesting and prevent (or lessen) boredom. Most also liked pictures because they felt that more information was offered thereby and that the site became more interesting. The amount of downloading time and the speed of connection, however, appeared to influence their use of such features as follows:

“I tried downloading some video clips, but it took me too long so I shut them down. It’s frustrating. I do not want to waste my time. I like the features but only when a faster connection is available and I have time.”

Other Features. Design features also appeared to influence the participants’ perception of and preferences for the web site. For example, many of them criticized Bush’s site, saying that the font was too small and the background color was dull (black and gray). In the meantime, some participants who liked Bush’s site better evaluated Gore’s as too cluttered and busy. The participants generally liked animated- or otherwise- interesting features on the web sites and thought that these features made them stay longer on the sites.

“I think Gore’s site is more colorful and full of fun things. I think Gore tries to humanize so much in every layer which reflects that Gore is a person like that.”

Conclusion

Overall, the participants preferred Gore’s site to Bush’s. They perceived Gore’s as carrying more information and features that made the site fun and interesting to navigate. The main reasons for liking Gore’s site were its ability to make visitors feel personally welcome, its user-friendly aspects, and its invitations to become involved in the campaign. On the other hand, some participants liked Bush’s site better in that it was much simpler and got to the point more directly without many design features. Those who preferred Bush’s site liked its simple way of presenting information and issues, and its seriousness and straightforwardness.

In summary, interactive features did not appear to make the participants feel like they interacted with the candidates. Participants suspected that the candidates would answer questions in an instant mail format. These skeptical reactions to the interactivity features on candidates’ web sites yield useful insight for public relations practitioners to improve the web as a political medium. Merely placing technical features for interactivity on the web does not guarantee symmetrical two-way communication leading to mutual understanding and good relationships with political candidates. To enhance the effectiveness of interactivity features as a relationship-building tactic, it should be executed in association with other humanizing factors to assure voters that the candidate is really concerned about the questions they ask and will take some time to examine those questions. Interactivity features can also be effectively coordinated with personalization features. Personalization features segmenting key publics and thus tailoring specific messages for each target public proved to be effective in increasing participants’ sense of involvement and trust in candidates. Other features such as ease of navigation and communication cue variety appeared to affect participants’ perceptions of candidates’ images and policies.

Another interesting point, observed during the focus group interviews, was that participants’ preferences seemed influenced by their preconception of, and predisposition toward the candidates. They did not seem to change their pre-existing attitudes toward either candidate after exposure to the web sites. Rather, they felt that their opinions or attitudes were reinforced, maybe in part because the biases they brought affected their perception of the web sites. This would provide useful guidelines to public relations practitioners to segment key publics, and to tailor messages for each public on the Internet. Web sites are tools for maintaining or extending the political identity and mainly communicating to those who already have favorable attitudes toward the candidate or the party, since they are at least motivated to visit the web site. Mass media are more likely to be used to persuade undecided or swing voters, due to the more intrusive nature of the media. That is, key audiences visiting candidates’ web sites would be at least attentive to, or active in, presidential campaigns. So, communication messages and special tactics using various features targeting those publics should be developed and implemented on the web sites. Furthermore, for apathetic or latent publics, special content and features should be devised and executed to attract their traffic to candidates’ sites.

Discussion

Given the importance of the Internet and its visible effects in the 2000 presidential campaign, this study exploring the web’s potential as a new political medium provides practical implications. This study examined what content and features were used as strategic tactics to enable candidates to implement two way communications and thus build a relationship with prospective voters, and how effective were those features on young voters. The results suggest that features for interactivity, personalization, ease of navigation, and variety of communication cues were useful tactics to increase participants’ level of interest and involvement in political campaigns. Beyond technical features on the web, another important point to be considered by political candidates and public relations practitioners is that the effectiveness of these strategic features on campaigns’ success varies depending on participants’ perceptions of the features on the web sites. To foster the sense of interaction, involvement, mutual understanding, thereby leading to actual votes, extra efforts, such as adding humanizing factors, more specific public segmentation, and tailored campaign messages for each key public, are needed. Furthermore, the web sites would be effective in building relationships with prospective voters by offering benefits to them not only during elections but also during non-election times. This long-term relationship could be enabled with comparatively little investment.

This study has limitations, in that this is exploratory and descriptive in nature. The size of materials for investigation was small due to the nature of the topic of interest, the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign’s official web sites. This study may provide only a descriptive snapshot of this ongoing phenomenon. We cannot generalize the results to other populations. Media richness theory also has its own shortcomings. Rather than objective, technical features suggested in media richness theory, voters’ perception of the features is more important because such perception can vary with individuals, social situations, and media experiences.xix

Given these concerns, future studies may examine specific content and features influencing the number of visits to, and time for staying on, the web sites, and the effects of them on voters’ knowledge of, attitudes towards, and behaviors in, political campaigns. Considering the characteristics of political campaigns, a longitudinal study would be interesting to see if changes in the content and features on candidates’ web sites would affect voters’ attitudes and voting behaviors over time. PRQ

Endnotes

“What Americans Think: Election Information via the Internet,” Spectrum, Fall 2000, 30-31.

ii Michael Cornfield, “The Internet Election,” PR Week, 22 November 1999 20-23.

iii Morris Merrill and Ogan Christine, “The Internet as Mass Medium,” Journal of Communication 46 (1996): 39-53.

iv Merrill and Christine, “The Internet as Mass Medium.”

v Cornfield, “The Internet Election.”

vi Candace White and Niranjan Raman, “The World Wide Web as a Public Relations Medium: The Use of Research, Planning, and Evaluation in Web Site Development,” Public Relations Review 25 (1999): 405-419.

vii Jeremy Carl, “Vote for Me,” Internet World, August 1995,56-57.

viii Carol A. McKeown and Kenneth D. Plowman, “Reaching Publics on the Web During the 1996 Presidential Campaign” (paper presented to the Annual Convention of AEJMC, Chicago, ,1998). Online Available: http://list.msu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9812B&L=aejmc&P=R25931.

ix Julie Holdren, “Cyber Soapbox,” Internet World, August 1995, 50-52.

x McKeown and Plowman, “Reaching Publics on the Web.”

xi James Coates, -96 Campaign Heating Up the Internet: Presidential Hopefuls Use Home Pages to Link Directly with Voters,” Chicago Tribune, 1 November 1995, p. 1.

xii William F. Powers, “Virtual Politics: Campaigning in Cyberspace” The Washington Post, 8 November 1994, p. El.

xiii Graeme Browning, “Congress,” The National Journal 27 (1995): 794.

xiv Browning, “Congress,” 794.

xv Chad Rubel, “TV Still Powerful, but Web Sites Offer New Stump for Polls,” Marketing News 29 (1995): 6.

xvi “Youth Vote Influenced By Online Information: Internet Election News Audience Seeks Convenience, Familiar Names,” The Pew Research Center (November 2000). http://www.people-press.org/online00morhtm

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By Hyun Soon Park and Sejung Marina Choi

Hyun Soon Park is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Advertising at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University.

Sejung Marina Choi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Advertising at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University.

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