Many decades ago society started talking about how televised debates were beginning to influence election campaigns. Now we have new questions about how new media influences them, such as — What makes effective website rhetoric for a mayoral candidate nowadays?
The city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada is going to have a municipal election in October 2010. Although it is only June, nine candidates have put their hat in the ring, and they all have websites already. Tony Seskus, a Calgary Herald journalist, contacted me yesterday (June 24, 2010) for my input on the candidates’ sites. I provided to him some of my general findings and advice, and critiques and ratings of all nine candidates’ websites, and a memorable image clip from the site.
As I posted this on my blog, I added two final sections that help readers think about the theory and criticism of website rhetoric — what methods are needed, and how my theoretical framework for analysis relates to what ancient and contemporary rhetoricians have said.
If there is interest in this topic, I may give an update in October/November on how the candidates’ sites looked on voting day, and see if my ratings have any correlation to the results of the election.
- Finding candidates’ websites
- General advice for web rhetoric
- The website critiques
- Bob Hawkesworth
- Ric McIver
- Craig Burrows
- Jon Lord
- Joe Connolly
- Kent Hehr
- Paul Hughes
- Wayne Stewart
- Questions & Methods
- Theories and Principles
Finding candidates’ websites
Since the internet is an important way of obtaining information on municipal candidates, the City’s own website should provide easy access to all the candidates’ official websites in a fair and accessible manner. On June 24, I could not find this information on the City’s website for the 2010 general election under “information for voters,” where it should be.
Obvious Google search terms should lead to this central, unbiased, prominent location with links to all of their official sites. Yesterday it took me 15 minutes and many clicks to find a site with such a list of websites, even using obvious Google search terms like “Calgary election 2010 candidates,” and even then some of the links were not to the official campaign sites but other sites by the individuals.
General advice for web rhetoric
This section was written after analyzing all the 9 websites below and summarizes my findings.
Many websites critiqued below were well done, but a few were harmful to the campaign. Hopefully the candidates will take feedback and do something productive with them, and hopefully those with good websites will make them even better by comparing them with others.
- Good writing is essential, even in the choice of words for menu items and buttons, and some do a great job of drawing in the readers with active verbs.
- When there is more text, it needs to be concise and well formatted in small chunks for online reading, and it needs to be content well argued and worth reading, with some of it written in the candidate’s own voice.
- Links to further information should be provided for those who want to do more research on the candidate and the issues.
- Candidates should remember to link back and forth both ways from social networking sites
- Forums that enable comment are essential for the demonstration of public interaction and listening. Candidates should occasionally take the time to respond to some comments personally so that there is a respectable degree of 2-way dialogue.
- YouTube seems underutilized by most candidates, and this makes a disappointing impression on those who may prefer video to text and may browse YouTube as a point of origin for candidate information.
- Tweets should be written so that non-tweeting visitors lurking on the Twitter site can comprehend messages appearing on the page; many sound like one hand clapping.
I think that the websites will play an important role for web-savvy Calgary voters. Not only the websites matter. Nowadays it also matters to provide motivating pathways to and from effectively used forums like Facebook and Twitter.
The website critiques
The following sites were analyzed in random order. All ratings are on a scale of 0 to 5 and were determined qualitatively, much like restaurant reviews and film reviews.
The sites were analyzed for the form and functionality of their web rhetoric, not the specific platforms and policy rhetoric, which arguably is what readers should be coming to their sites to get. I leave candidates to decide how to fill their sites with content worth reading, content that is ethical and responsible, which convinces audiences about what should be done to make our city better. For more information about the 3 major criteria, see the bottom of this post.
First impression =3.5
Message and readability = 3
Interactivity = 3
The home page gives a first impression of Bob as professional and friendly, but stereotypical, bland, and uncreative. The main message on the front page is full of nice but empty platitudes and nothing tangible. Images portray an emphasis on buildings and infrastructure more than people. The writing uses accessible English in short paragraphs, but once off the home page it is hard to read the excessively long lines of text across the whole page, and the “issues” are discussed in very vague terms. In terms of interactivity, all blog posts are posted by “News Blog (administrator)” or “anonymous.” Who is writing? And there are no comments yet; do his supporters know this site is here? There is a poll on the front page, but no sign of what he will do with results. Great embedded video by Calgary Herald, but there’s no room to comment on it without going to YouTube, where there are no comments. No Facebook, no Twitter as alternative methods of long-term engagement.
First impression =4.5
Message and readability = 5
Interactivity = 4
In the first moments pondering the home page, Ric comes across as approachable, slick, interactive, open. However, the many colors of the background clash with the main message area. The 3-D effect of Ric’s head and shoulders peeking up over the text area looks like he is a stick puppet, and he floats eerily in space over the trees. Writing is very well done with concise text, erudite vocabulary, and active verbs; texts get longer as you click for more. Most of the message in the first and second layers of the site is third-person text with little from Ric himself; for instance, a lot “issues” text reports on what is happening with very little of what Ric thinks. Clicking a red “have your say” button takes you to a forum where a good number are interacting amongst themselves without Ric; if you want a reply you have to email him. His Facebook site is similar, with many posts from his campaign team (the most recent was more than 1 month ago), several replies by others, but no comment-responses from Ric. Is he just too busy and important for this forum? The YouTube channel’s background is visually annoying, and has only 2 videos so far. One pre-campaign video from January has two comments and over 900 views — obviously viewed from outside of YouTube or else there would be some more comments here. Ric Tweets at a respectable rate with 264 tweets and 669 followers since the Twitter site’s creation (before campaign?) but tweets often require missing context info to comprehend.
First impression =4.5
Message and readability = 5
Interactivity = 4
The viewers of this site are greeted with a friendly, young, social, active and visionary personality. The word “vision” is used often and there is talk of using technology to interact. Mr. Burrows seems a little too polished and cosmetic in the header image, like a news anchor, but other images show Craig in real locations with real people. It is engaging to read a biography page written in first person with many details; this seems very genuine and down to earth. He articulates problems in City Council very clearly, but there is too much direct criticism of others, especially from someone who seems young. Every page footer has a place to send comments, but where will this go and why is my phone number needed? Links to social sites include one to “foursquare” which is relatively unknown and its content seems too personal for this purpose. There are 6 well done videos on YouTube with many views but little information from the poster or replies from viewers. There have been 109 tweets since announcing candidacy about 1 month ago. Many are replies to other people, which shows responsiveness. However, most messages are hard to understand without knowing what he is responding to, and some seem private.
First impression = 0
Message and readability = 0
Interactivity = 2.5
This was the most difficult website to view. Unfortunately, it currently portrays Jon and his team as unprofessional, disorganized, unarticulate, and annoying. The screaming green color and misaligned text boxes, dizzying fonts and scrolling clichés assault the viewer in many ways.
Overall the logic of the home page layout is hard to interpret. The header “Jon Lord for mayor” is in the lower right quadrant underneath an embedded video with another man’s face that looks bigger than Jon’s. It took me a long time to look above the unclickable line with moving text and realize that the top line with “About Jon,” etc. had clickable buttons leading to unique pages.
Still on the home page, scrolling down further past some black-on-white text, I was ambushed by a row of 3 mega-ton buttons in large all-caps text, all saying “here’s proof…” Here is one of them below (actual size). “Hard sell” tactics early in the game can push an otherwise very interested customer away.
As for the writing, it may contain good ideas, but they are easily lost in verbal clutter, poor formatting and a tone that comes off as distastefully preachy or boastful. For example, the “Action plan” page, after saying “talk is cheap,” takes 370 words to get to point 1 of the action plan, and the whole page is 5 screens long. The home page’s message begins not by focusing on Jon or the issues, but by taking 59 words to boast about how this campaign website is better than the others. Another page, called “Voting is as easy as…,” presumes to teach the 3 criteria by which we should select a mayoral candidate.
In terms of interactivity, there is no room for interaction on the site itself, not even on “Jon’s Blog” or the “What is your…” page (this is a page that asks for our opinion on a bullet list of 28 topics). The off-site interaction is better, but the site does not do much to drive viewers there. The Facebook page has some activity and is much more readable than the campaign site, and the Twitter site has 71 tweets over approximately 12 months. Many tweets show Jon’s frank opinions as he expresses himself spontaneously about issues, often several times a day on the same issue (i.e. Jazz fest cancellation).
First impression = 5
Message and readability = 5
Interactivity = 4
Joe’s website character seems assertive but humble and approachable, with images of Joe in Calgary outdoor settings with the west wind in his hair, or in his office leaning forward to talk. The home page is focused, with brief first-person messages next to changing photos. The overall browsing experience is enhanced by the clean and light colors, with shades of gray over white and a gently curving red accent, like the gentle curve on the edge of a cowboy hat. All features are easily accessible and well laid out on the home page. There is a blog with well summarized and articulate, engaging posts that utilize bullets and paragraphing well. Pages occasionally have several pdf attachments for further reading. There is an excellent Facebook site with a lot of interaction, a prolific Twitter site with 595 Tweets and 628 followers, but it has been active for much longer than the campaign. Tweets are actually audience-sensitive and understandable, and many report on his hard work and interaction with other people on important issues. A vew videos can be found on two separate video sharing platforms, but with very few comments.
First impression = 3
Message and readability = 3
Interactivity = 2
Kent’s site does not greet a viewer well at first. There is a visually confusing splash page that puzzles the reader by giving them the option to “skip signup” before they notice it asks for an email address. Once you get to the main page, the ethos is too reliant on photos of Kent, and the only text rushes by at a high speed; word-based links piled on each other at the top actually repeat the content of icon-based buttons lower on the page. Again, once you dig down a third layer, things improve. Messages in the main pages are engaging with yellow bold emphasis on some words, and even more photos along the side. There are only two news items at this point but they are well summarized with a thumbnail image. There is more prose about him than from him; what if a user would rather not click on a video? On the issues page Kent addresses us about issues in very small snippets, but we don’t get links to more of a developed argument with examples. There are no comment boxes and no blog-like or forum-like interaction takes place on the site. The form for volunteering is awkwardly laid out and seems a little bossy in its demand (in all capitals) for “REQUIRED” info and “JOBS.” The Twitter link sent me to a login page not his Twitter page, and he does not have a Facebook page yet, but you can advertise his on your own Facebook page if you have one. The YouTube channel has two videos and no comments yet.
First impression = 1
Message and readability = 0
Interactivity = 1
This site and candidate seem to be clueless about technology. The website name is a bad pun, “paulinate.” The only image on the site looks like a washroom door icon with lucky charms circling around it, and we don’t have Paul’s face or message. The website does not have much to say yet except give links to what looks like other people’s programs or groups. The only element of interactivity here is his contact information, which includes an email address and two twitter handles. (Note, June 26: I have been informed Paul has a good Facebook site, but this site does not have a link there. Effective interactivity involves links between the website and other web services where the candidate interacts.)
First impression =4.5
Message and readability = 3
Interactivity = 3
The image this site portrays is friendly, social, approachable, organized and straightforward. Interestingly, some of the images (especially the one shown here) remind me of the children’s show Mr. Rogers saying hello to his neighbors. The colors are a clean white with a traditional soft blue and a splash of red accent. The home page has a strong and simple message with a good level of detail, and provides video clips, news story headlines, social networking links. The content is concise but depends too much on taking me off-site to news articles. The bio is well written and readable in journalistic style in a fairly narrow column with a good sized font and short paragraphs. However, there is not enough written by Wayne himself here, and not much said, period. The news articles feature only a small passage from a longer article, while the links to articles are formatted like links but are not clickable for some reason. The Facebook wall has mainly messages from Wayne’s campaign people. On YouTube at this point early in the campaign, there are a good amount (10)of rough, blurry videos with very few comments. The Twitter site linked to this is good, but there is a huger gap between the general following* (2001) and number of followers (321) and the amount of leading by outgoing messages (49). Messages often seem to be sent by his campaign team. (*note: Twitter gives a different number for “following”, which is usually larger than the # of “followers”.)
First impression =4
Message and readability = 4
Interactivity = 4
Naheed’s home page portrays him as young, energetic, trendy, and informal. It has a clean, google-white with subdued teal colors and a creamy mustard accent. The bio page gives us a beaming image with a third-person description of accomplishments. The writing is very blog-like and intertextual, with many embedded links under words that take a person to proof. To read Naheed’s own writing, we’re directed off site to many articles from the Herald, but the blog provides more of his own words, although in random date order and mixed in with third-person posts. The blog posts are well written and nicely formatted for readability with bullets, but need stronger paragraph breaks. There are good comments and replies to comments on blog posts, but the replies are from “Admin” not necessarily Nenshi. Nenshi’s Twitter site is prolific with 2426 tweets, many per day, and over 900 followers, but this likely happened over a very long term prior to the onset of campaign. Some tweets are incomprehensible without knowing what he is replying to. The facebook site is good but most wall posts are his own campaigners’. It does have a good single facebook discussion area with an open question and 12 posts, but no reply from Nenshi yet. Good forms to fill out to contact, volunteer, or donate.
Questions & Methods
These final two sections will be of interest for advanced readers who desire further insight into the critique I have posted above.
- What makes effective website rhetoric for a mayoral candidate nowadays?
Does it need a blog, a link to a Twitter site and Facebook page as well? Why?
Do videos help? If so, how can they be used well or poorly?
Does the quality and content of writing on the site matter?
How much writing should be there and how should it be organized and formatted?
How does one go about answering these important questions? The answers could save time, money, and make the difference in an election’s results. The answers also advance the humanistic science of rhetorical theory and will influence rhetorical pedagogy (teaching and learning).
Many of these questions can’t be answered conclusively without usability testing and audience research on various types of voters and web users. The Nielsen Norman Group, which contains a major thinker in usability Jakob Nielsen, are major gurus on usability, but new technologies and online services keep on changing, and audiences change, and local circumstances require special strategies that may run counter to the best advice. It is hard for even the best to keep up to “today”, and to adapt advice meaningful to “here” and “there” and specific communication aims. And as a practitioner if you worship advice too much, you might dampen your creativity and innovation.
However, a rhetorician can develop some useful hypotheses (specific rhetorical theories) and test them by comparatively analyzing several website artifacts created for a similar purpose (an election), occasion and location (2010 in Calgary) through analyzing how they deploy words, images and technologies and use their contextual knowledge to engage target audiences (rhetorical criticism).
Rhetorical theory and criticism is a good start, and it’s relatively cheap, although it is based on aptitudes sharpened through education and experience, which are not cheap. These aptitudes reside in people’s trained minds, rather than in testing equipment and technologies. If and when one does have qualitative audience data and quantitative site visit data, rhetorical theory and criticism is still required for rigorous, responsible and useful interpretation of broader audience data.
Through the process from theory/hypothesis formation, to data-gathering, data-analysis and rhetorical criticism, good theories are questioned and refined. Refined theories can then fortify good principles that guide everyday rhetorical practice, through rhetorical pedagogy (teaching) and advice.
Theories and principles
For my analysis of these 9 websites, I considered 3 main features, drawing from my knowledge of ancient rhetorical theory. I combined this with my contemporary understanding of online rhetoric garnered from teaching web design courses and reading and pondering analysts such as Ginny Redish and various other writers of textbooks and journal articles on professional and technical communication.
First impression: This analysis focused on the rhetorical construction of ethos, or the character of the speaker(s), in this case, the candidate.
- Ethos was primarily constructed through photos of the candidate, the visual layout and colors and other images on the site, the words placed in prominent locations in larger fonts. These are largely visual cues which an audience interprets through culture, psychological frames, and habits of online interaction, inorder to make meaning, such as “this person and/or their campaign team is disorganized.”
- The use of technology itself conveys an ethos or ethic of emphasis, welcome and accessibility through the way in which the home page links to various pages and external resources and thus shows itself as an accessible, relevant, useful provider of information. I did not have time to listen to the videos posted, unfortunately, so my analysis does not touch on oral delivery portrayed there, only on the still image shown before hitting the “play” button.
Message and readability: This analysis focused on the textual messages on many pages of the site including the home page.
- Here, not only the content is considered, but its visual and logical organization and style, the first three of the five canons used in constructing rhetorical messages: invention, arrangement and style.This part of the analysis focused on how textual messages engaged all three appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos: The topic, emphasis, and argument is critiqued for its logos — how it enables an audience to engage with claims and evidence and agree with the importance of issues and the nature and causes of problems. Texts also affect how audiences are likely to perceive emotion in a message (i.e. righteous anger, patriotism) and react emotionally (pathos). Written messages also communicate the author(s) moral character, expertise and ability, and good will toward the audience (ethos).
- A crucial element of website effectiveness is readability. Based on the ways users interact with pages that link and scroll and have an endless variety of visual configurations, text needs to be structured in an accessible manner in order to be read in the first place, and read with its desired effect. Width of text columns, fonts and font sizes, spacing, text styles such as bold, length of paragraphs, indentations, and headings — all these tools can be used well or badly to impact web readability.
Interactivity: This is an important factor in 21st century online communication– the engagement of audiences so that they click and type (and therefore are more disposed to speak and act) in desired ways.
- Websites inspire interaction by motivating readers to click to find further information, to reply and comment, to send emails or fill out forms, to post and share information on their own blogs and social networks. Through interactivity, websites enlist users in co-creating webs of influence and information. Users are coming to expect higher levels of interactivity.
- To be effective in providing interactivity, one must not only provide links but motivate people to click on them for an appropriate reason. It’s like inviting someone to a party or event. They will only go if it’s convenient, if it allows engagement with valuable people, and if they are likely to have a good time and come away with more knowledge and/or an enhancement of their own social network and standing.
- Once a person has clicked (and has metaphorically walked through the online door to the forum where the event takes place), the author may also need to provide the equivalent of an agenda, a welcome announcement, signage, or a programme: some cues or explicit instruction about social motives, aims and ethics to encourage them to comment, reply, and interpret in a certain way that makes it an effective experience for all.
- Online forums also need to welcome genuine audience reaction. Allow some freedom for engagement, even if there must be boundaries. As when hearing a well-delivered speech in a lecture hall, an actively engaged audience will be moved to clap, cry out “yes,” cry, gasp, and cheer — and they will want to talk or write about what they experienced. Sometimes even criticism arises from a deep commitment to a candidate’s cause; it may demonstrate that a person has faith that you will listen.
- Audiences tend to act as a crowd, taking cues from leaders and one another. They will be influenced by the behavior of the forum’s leaders and their peers — examples speak louder than words regarding who can speak and what kinds of things can be said and done. Is the candidate listening and engaging with his/her guests? Is the candidate even present? Do I want to say anything or get noticed, or should I just lurk and observe others? Is it becoming boring, awkward or irrelevant now?
- Allow audiences to choose and change channels… if you allow many forums for engagement, you can maximize that engagement by ensuring 2-way traffic flow between each forum and a central communication hub, whether the central hub is a candidate’s website or somewhere else.
- In terms of ancient rhetorical concepts, the canons that most closely relate to interactivity are memory and delivery, but ancient Greeks were thinking primarily of oral face to face communication, their most important medium. Memory and Delivery is now less about memorizing a speech beforehand and performing it with grace and power. In order to understand interactivity, one must think completely differently about memory and delivery as a web of virtual space, networks and forums. Memory and delivery is now the art of making sure that what you say is inscribed in the appropriate forum for maximum amplification and audience engagement through viral repetition.