Web as part of a greater campaign: economic and philosophic differences

In support of an upcoming conference, we were asked to address some questions on the theme of web strategy as part of a greater campaign. This campaign would also incorporate more traditional media like public service announcements and other branding.

Our inputs addressed issues ranging from consistency in color palette and overall aesthetic, to cost considerations, to social media integration, to  mechanisms for evaluating effectiveness. Most of the discussion would be familiar to any of our clients who have gone through a full development or strategy process with us. As the dialog progressed, however, we found ourselves moving from “planning and campaign integration fundamentals” to the higher level, more philosophical subject of how the web, as a campaign medium, fundamentally differs from other campaign media, and the practical implications of those differences when thinking holistically about web as one leg of a greater campaign.

We could probably write a thesis paper on the subject, but for of the sake of our time and our readers’ attention spans, we’ve tried to boil it down to a handful of paragraphs.

Comparative Campaign Media

Websites are distinct from most other campaign mediums in three important ways: scalability (or the economics of reach), interactivity, and immediacy. A smart campaign focuses their web initiative on the benefits of all three.

Most dominant campaign marketing tools are limited in time and depth by the inherit nature of their format.

A brochure or pamphlet can, practically speaking, only contain so many pages. Each additional page adds cost for each brochure printed; put differently, some negligible passing around of a single booklet aside, there’s a cost per page per recipient, even if  the recipient is not interested in half the pages. This cost places very real limits on the number of brochures that can be printed, and we haven’t even factored in the cost to deliver each individual brochure into the hands of a recipient. Limits on the number of printable brochures and means for delivery, in turn, seriously limits the size of the overall audience that can be reached.

A television or radio PSA is limited by time, both in length (typically 30-60 second sound bytes), but arguably more importantly, the information is only available during the brief snapshot in time when the PSA is actually playing. A recipient can at least flip through a brochure at their convenience; completely non-user-interactive media like video also limit the audience’s ability to “scan” or “browse” material; the audience has no control over what information they receive at a given moment (short of tuning out!).

These are scalability limits, or limits in reach: the economics of campaign media.

Beyond the fixed cost associated with creating a web page for the first time, there’s no practical limit as to how many pages or articles a website can offer. There’s no limit to how much time a visitor may choose to spend with the website, or when he or she can spend time with the website. There’s no practical limit on the number of visitors who can discover and use the site. And well designed websites allows visitors to effectively scan (or “drill down”) to the information they’re interested in at a given moment. Campaigns should put it all up on the web – high level information, the PSA sound bytes, detailed information found in a brochure. Let the visitor decide what’s worthwhile, and when it’s worthwhile.

More importantly, limit media like brochures to key information likely to be interesting to most readers, and refer back to the web for depth or detail that may only interest some readers, or is to costly to print. Focus sound byte media (i.e. radio spots) on generating buzz or interest, and refer back to the website for information not easily or effectively conveyed in under 60 seconds.

Effective campaigns also engage their audience; many successful, major campaigns have introduced interactivity via campaigns tools other than the web (particularly before the advent and popularization of the web). Classic examples include speakers sent to schools around the country for question and answer, and educational exhibits at fairs, museums, and even malls. But these traditional efforts are hampered by cost and reach. How much does it cost to send a speaker to just one school? And how many participants is that speaker capable of reaching at each engagement?

A website offers participants replicable interactivity with global reach and without the high marginal cost for each group that participates. In other words, even though that exhibit may be virtually identical at each fair or museum it travels to, there’s a cost to set it up and run it for each new audience. Once a single interactive web feature is built,  the costs can be negligible per participant (say, an interactive Flash game that doesn’t need to be updated, or even better, [post=”140″ text=”participant and grassroots contributed content like video”]) or extremely low per participant where continued human participation is required (for example, an “ask an expert” feature, or forum moderation).

Furthermore, the web offers low barriers to entry for basic grassroots participation. Anyone who has run a campaign knows that classic grassroots organization like staging a rally or getting volunteers to tell friends (in person) is a big struggle due to the demands on the audiences time or long term mind share. The minimal (but still rewarding to participants) time involved in sharing information with friends via an “email to a friend” feature or a Twitter post, or adding a badge or joining a group on social networks like Facebook, is not only valuable, it can be a first baby step toward greater grassroots participation.

Great campaign web sites don’t simply reprint content seen in other venues or refer them to traditional grassroots organization means: they add new means for visitors to interact, learn, and engage in ways they can’t or won’t in other scalable mediums.

Finally, videos, billboards, and fliers are only as up to date as the day they were originally published. That brochure someone found might be months or years old! A website provides immediacy – the potential to always be the “latest version” with up-to-the-minute information. Smart campaigns direct their audience to the website for “the latest campaign news.” Features like a “petition counter,” that always has the latest tally of participants (“sign the petition online!”), or grassroot videos that participants can immediately (or almost immediately) send to their friends keep an engaged audience coming back. Who looks at a flier more than once or twice? The website should be the hub for the latest campaign news, and convey a sense of energy, activity, and momentum.

A caveat to preempt the technical sophisticates in our audience that could point out that bandwidth and hosting (the marginal costs involved in publishing and delivering website content) are not free. The point is, compared to the cost of reaching comparable audiences by other means, it may as well be. Most small campaigns will be fine with sub-$50 shared hosting; an audience that would require multi-thousand dollar hosting solutions would only otherwise be accessible through multimillion dollar traditional methods. And resources like YouTube, that allow hosting of bandwidth intensive features like member video (even in HD now!), further mitigate delivery costs. Even where web delivery costs are high, the economies of scale remain far superior.