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Campaigning on the Web is becoming standard procedure
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Ross Heupel is marketing director for St. Paul-based Avenet, a company that sells software used by political campaigns to manage their Web sites. (MPR Photo/Andris Straumanis)
With the success of former presidential hopeful Howard Dean's online campaigning, more political candidates are jumping onto the Web. In Minnesota, some are even trying new ways to reach out to potential supporters.

St. Paul, Minn. — Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign for president may have collapsed months ago in Iowa, but the work he did online to recruit volunteers and raise donations has prompted many other political candidates to take notice.

In Minnesota this year, a campaign without a Web site seems more the exception than the rule. While some candidates are still pondering what they should put on their sites, a few already are trying innovative ways to reach potential voters.

DFLer Denise Dittrich of Champlin is one example. Dittrich, who's running for the Minnesota House, said she didn't have to think twice about a having a Web site. It appeared online about a month ago. State Rep. Char Samuelson, R-New Brighton, is running for re-election, doesn't have a campaign Web site yet, but said she expects to by September.

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Image Rebecca Otto's Web site

"I think you're finding more and more who are convinced it’s the way to go," said Ken Schulz, a senior account executive for Campaign Solutions Inc., an Alexandria, Virginia, company that specializes in voter contact and communications for Republican politicians.

Companies like Campaign Solutions also are becoming more common. And with the rise of the industry, a theory of what makes a good, basic campaign site has developed, too.

Tell your story, solicit contributions and recruit volunteers -- those are the key elements any Web site for a political campaign ought to have, said Ross Heupel, marketing director for Avenet, a St. Paul company that makes a leading software package for online politicking.

Displaying the home page for Patty Wetterling's campaign on a large glass screen in Avenet's headquarters, Heupel notes how the site makes it easy to find links to donate and volunteer. Wetterling, a Democrat, is running for Congress in the 6th District against incumbent Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican.

In business since 1999, Avenet makes CampaignOffice, a content management system for political campaign Web sites like Wetterling's. Avenet also makes GovOffice, a system for local government Web sites, and NonprofitOffice, a similar product for nonprofit organizations.

"Some campaigns spend 20 grand on Web site development," Heupel said. "But what about the small guy, the guy running for state government?"

Tell your story, solicit contributions and recruit volunteers.
- Key elements of a campaign Web site

That's where software like CampaignOffice comes in. Avenet, Heupel explained, offers a simple-to-use content management system that allows candidates to choose one of several different templates for their site. In addition, the site is hosted on a server owned by Avenet.

"They want a Web site up and running quick," he said. "Our product does that for them."

Wetterling had her Web site operating 36 hours after announcing her candidacy May 11. But her site also looks similar to those of other candidates who use CampaignOffice, such as those for U.S. Reps. Nick Lampson and Charlie Stenholm, both Democrats from Texas.

Others who have used Avenet's software include U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Barack Obama, the Democrat running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

The cost of the software varies by the size of the candidate's potential constituency. A Minnesota House of Representatives candidate would pay $500 for the basic package, said Brandon Philipczyk, Avenet's sales and marketing coordinator. A Minnesota Senate candidate would pay $750, while a statewide candidate would pay $2,000.

The custom-designed congressional candidate Web sites created by Campaign Solutions typically cost $5,000 to $15,000.

Although cost may be an issue for candidates who are trying to stretch every dollar of a budget, Ken Schulz of Campaign Solutions, Inc. said a campaign Web site needs to look professional.

"A campaign shouldn't skimp on it," Schulz said. "It shouldn't be the red-headed stepchild that it often is."

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Image Ray Cox's Web site

State Rep. Rebecca Otto, DFL-Marine on St. Croix, is among those trying something different. Otto's site was built from scratch by her husband, entrepreneur and Hollywood screenwriter Shawn Otto.

"He's a pretty handy guy," she said. Otto is running against Republican Matthew Dean.

Otto's site provides the basics -- background on the candidate and her stance on the issues, plus a way to contribute to the campaign. But it also adds a few bells and whistles, including archived audio and video.

"It ended up doing more than I ever expected it to," Rebecca Otto said of the site.

The newest addition to the site is a virtual town hall meeting, she said. The software is the creation of Adayana Inc. of Edina. Designed initially for corporate environments, the program allows people to propose, discuss and evaluate ideas without the need for physical meetings.

"Think of it as a giant suggestion box on steroids," Adayana CEO Rajiv Tandon said.

State Rep. Ray Cox, R-Northfield, and his DFL challenger David Bly, have remarkably similar Web sites. Both prominently feature blogs (short for Web log, an online diary of sorts) in which they discuss their campaigning and political philosophies. And both sites were designed by Griff Wigley, a Northfield online entrepreneur.

"I approached Ray Cox two years ago when he was elected," Wigley recalled. "I approached him first on his construction company site and said, 'Your site sucks.'"

Once the business site was updated, Wigley convinced Cox that he needed a Web site for his political activities as well. The result was a new Web site where the first-term representative discusses his ideas and, these days, his campaign.

Bly's site does much the same.

Unlike campaign sites whose content doesn't seem to change much, Wigley said blogs allow a candidate to be heard.

"My mantra is that a Weblog can really be a voice of authenticity," Wigley said.

Both sites also feature an easy way for visitors to donate money to the campaign.

The two candidates' blogs are part of a larger effort at online civic engagement in Northfield. Wigley also is behind, a community-based blog, and even helps the city's police chief run a blog.

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