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Bentley College Study Finds Senate Campaign Web Sites Fail to Meet Needs of Candidates and Voters

February 27, 2002

WALTHAM, Mass.- Campaign web sites for U.S. Senate candidates have tremendous potential but to date fail to increase voter education or activate the mass electorate, reports a new study by Bentley College professors Christine B. Williams and Andrew Aylesworth and their former colleague Kenneth J. Chapman, now at California State University, Chico. Moreover, the researchers found that senatorial campaign web sites do not yet level the playing field for third parties. Their study, "The 2000 e-Campaign for U.S. Senate," forthcoming in the Journal of Political Marketing (Fall 2002), examines the marriage of politics and marketing to computer technology and determines that the needs of candidates and voters have not yet been joined by the Internet.

Williams, Aylesworth and Chapman found that all but five of the 68 major party candidates (93%) and 60 of 103 third party candidates (58%) had campaign web sites for the 2000 Senate races. Compared to previous election campaigns, they found an increase in design elements that advance campaign purposes, such as online and credit card contributions, but few features or services that were directed to the mass electorate.

"So far, they are missing an opportunity to educate and mobilize the electorate, let alone improve public debate and civic discourse," said Christine B. Williams, Professor of Behavioral and Political Sciences at Bentley College in Waltham, MA. "Particularly striking is the absence of voter registration information and privacy policies from the large majority of web sites," said Williams.

Key Findings: Both the content of candidates' web sites and its presentation need to be improved but there are few incentives in place to make it a priority. Currently, neither high traffic nor the right kind of visitors provides enough return on investment of time and money. Campaigners took little advantage of the interactivity that makes web sites such a powerful communication and marketing tool. Many of the web sites lacked basic navigation tools, making it difficult to find desired information.

Third party candidate web sites lagged behind those of Democrats and Republicans in most respects, with the notable exceptions of mentioning their party names and the candidates at the tops of their tickets. Despite concerns about declining turnout, fewer than one-third of the sites provided any voter registration information. Senate candidates used comparative content sparingly. Only 17.2% of the web sites examined included negative content.

The study concludes that these web sites fail to employ a relationship marketing strategy to create repeat "customers" for the services of candidates for public office.

"The good news is that comparative or negative content is much lower on campaign web sites than what's typical for television advertising" said Andrew Aylesworth, Associate Professor of Marketing at Bentley College. "However, you won't find much opportunity for two-way communication. Even the most basic attention-grabbing elements are missing, such as animation, audio or video clips. Some attempt should be made to establish relationships with online visitors, such as using an online or email-based newsletter."

The 2000 election saw an increase in the use of sites for the benefit of the campaign: soliciting contributions, volunteers and personal contact information. "Visitors needs, on the other hand, could be met more effectively by providing voter registration information, conducting online polls as a means to express views or send questions to the candidate," said Kenneth Chapman, now Associate Professor of Marketing at California State University, Chico.

Soliciting vs. Providing Campaign Services:

Lastly, recent Congressional hearings on privacy notwithstanding, two-thirds of sites were collecting personal data from visitors, but fewer than 15% had a privacy policy posted on-site. Privacy notices could reassure potential donors who might use credit cards if the web site enables voters to contribute online.

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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