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.

Read the News24 article on this subject.

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.

19 Responses to “SA political party launches impressive, Obama-esque campaign site”
  1. […] new web site and even a Twitter account for Helen Zille. Matthew Buckland has in fact written an excellent piece highlighting the various digital efforts of our major political parties. But my heart is not in […]

  2. […] for DA volunteers. A number of people have blogged about it, and I’d say the verdict is, on balance, positive. However, some of the negative commentary has generated some […]

  3. there is a big difference between being inspired and appropriation

  4. […] Political party launches impressive, Obama-esque campaign site […]

  5. […] because enough is being said about it. We’ve heard from the rational, to the argumentative to the pain in the arse, blow everything out of proportion […]

  6. Yes, it is too late to have much influence on this election, but they will go through a hell of a learning curve. This will hold them in very good stead next time, by which will have real broadband and over 10 million connected to the Internet (many via cellphones?).

    So it is great investment and does help tie the DA to Obama’s message of hope. Compare this to tying the ANC to Zuma’s message of impending doom and accelerated descent into the very bowels of corruption.

  7. @Tweedle Dee — Time to get your head out of the sand and stop repeating outdated mantras that you’ve heard from others. Ie tell that to the 12-million MXIT users. Furthermore a lot less than 50-million people end up voting (about 16 million in fact). Also, show me a party that can afford to ignore even 500,000 votes, never mind 5-million votes. Think about it.

  8. Can someone tell these bozo’s and “miss botox face” that 87% of South African voters are not connected to the Internet.

  9. @Anthony Thanks for the correction Anthony. I appreciate the support. We worked hard on the C2C website! We ope it aids the DA in its campaign for elections!

  10. @Anthony thanks, have made the correction. Understand all too well the cost issues, and agree language is particularly complex.

    @Ryan I wouldn’t expect the site to have the same impact as Obama either, but the point I always make is that the internet and mobile audience is significant relative to the actual electorate size. It’s not a bad phase 1, and foundation to build more on. Congrats.

    @Nik, Nick, Rox — I guess from their perspective earlier would have been better, but as you say “better late than never”. I guess they’re taking a longer view.

  11. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the write-up. Just a quick correction – our official site was built by Worldwide Creative, but Contribute to Change was built by Lightspeed.

    A quick additional note on Language. We took a decision to keep the navigation on the site in English – essentially to have one site with content available in different languages, rather than mirror sites for different languages. As Ryan said this is largely because of costs, but it also pays attention to user behaviour on our previous site (pre-blog), where we found that very few users made use of alternative language versions of the site.

    Wherever we have got content translated (e.g. About\Our Vision), you will see there are language options available. As Ryan said, we’ll gradually add more content that is available in other languages.

  12. Hi Matthew,

    Just a quick correction – our official site was built by Worldwide Creative, but Contribute to Change was built by Lightspeed.

    A quick additional note on Language. We took a decision to keep the navigation on the site in English – essentially to have one site with content available in different languages, rather than mirror sites for different languages. As Ryan said this is largely because of costs, but it also pays attention to user behaviour on our previous site (pre-blog), where we found that very few users made use of alternative language versions of the site.

    Wherever we have got content translated (e.g. About\Our Vision), you will see there are language options available. As Ryan said, we’ll gradually add more content that is available in other languages.

  13. Hi Mathew – Thanks for your positive feedback about our new websites. Just to give you some further information in response to some of your criticisms:

    We are in the process of producing a mobile application for the contributetochange site. It is in the early stages of development but is coming. Incidently, of our 6600 volunteers signed up to date, over 3000 are accessible only on their cell phones and we currently use sms to do that.

    We do have a shortcode number for sms donations and will add this to both sites.

    We will be adding more language options as time goes by – it’s expensive to do, but we’re committed to doing it as much as we can.

    We do advertise our presence on facebook and twitter etc, but perhaps not as prominently as we should – we will look at improving this. Thanks for the advice.

    On the timing: it is indeed just two short months before the next election, but these sites and the further development we intend to do, including mobile development, are longer term moves and not simply about the current election campaign. We think that as broadband becomes cheaper and hand held devices are increasingly used to access the internet, this kind of campaign tool will become increasingly important. But we don’t expect our web presence to have the impact Obama’s did in the US because of our different socio-economic context and the fact that there are few people in SA who have integrated the internet into their lives in the way that is now common in the US. But it will become more and more impactful as time goes on and we intend to be on the cutting edge.

    We will continue improving and are open to any criticisms and suggestions anyone might have. So thanks again.

    Ryan Coetzee

  14. Good post, and very valid points. The time factor is a big one, but if you consider that the IEC website will only be revamped in September, then they’re not doing too badly!

    The language barrier is a big thing as well, and I think the mobile gap ties in with this – sadly, by being mostly online and targeting one main audience group, this could affect a bigger reach.

    Still, I’m impressed – and it’s also nice to see Helen Zille so active on Twitter.

  15. @Wendy — yeah agree. The emphasis was on “traditional” and relates to my personal experience.

  16. Hey not all agencies are clueless re online strategy!

  17. Better late than never. It’s possible that bloggers can create something of a political storm in SA. That said, it would probably still be a storm in a teacup since SA’s web audience is no more than 5 million. That’s around a fifth or more of the registered voters though which is fairly significant. The value of whatthe DA is doing probably will be felt in the election after this one, where lessons can be learned.

  18. Matt – I also wonder if this all comes a little bit too late? Should this sort of strategy not have been implemented at least a year ago? We are now 2 months from the elections, the main registration periods are just about over and things feel very rushed. Campaigns, in my humble opinion, are not built, accomplished and won in two months.

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