Investigating the Voter Experience with Republican Candidate Websites
Head-to-head competitions between GOP candidate websites show that campaigns too frequently place campaign objectives ahead of voter needs. Competition experiments, using 15 undecided voters, found that the websites of Michele Bachman and Hermann Cain were the most effective at influencing voters. Surprisingly, the website of GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney, was one of the worst.
Specifically, the objectives of the interviews were:
- To determine which candidate website creates the best overall experience for voters by assessing the general usability of each candidate's website.
- To identify design inconsistencies and usability problem areas within the user interface and content areas.
- To determine to what extent candidate websites balance organizational objectives with user wants, needs and motivations.
- To establish baseline user performance and user-satisfaction levels for each website for future usability evaluations.
Due to the large number of candidates and the still uncertain nature of the front-runner, we used a representative sample of six out of the nine candidates who participated in this fall's presidential debates. The candidates we selected represent a broad cross section of both Republican ideology and website design and functionality. The candidates selected for this study were:
- Michele Bachmann - michelebachmann.com
- Herman Cain – hermancain.com
- Jon Huntsman - jon2012.com
- Rick Perry - rickperry.org
- Mitt Romney - mittromney.com
- Rick Santorum - ricksantorum.com
Testing was conducted October 21-24, 2011, using 15 undecided voters recruited from throughout the U.S. with a mixture of demographic characteristics and voting histories (5 Democrat / 4 Mixed / 6 Republican). Each interview was structured as a head-to-head competition experiment, i.e. each participant completed the same set of tasks on two different candidate websites. To ensure fair coverage and to determine a "winner", the websites and their order varied from participant to participant.
|1||Mixed||Perry vs. Huntsman|
|2||Mixed||Cain vs. Huntsman|
|3||Republican||Romney vs. Cain|
|4||Republican||Santorum vs. Perry|
|5||Democrat||Santorum vs. Romney|
|6||Mixed||Huntsman vs. Bachmann|
|7||Democrat||Romney vs. Perry|
|8||Mixed||Cain vs. Bachmann|
|9||Republican||Perry vs. Bachmann|
|10||Democrat||Perry vs. Cain|
|11||Republican||Huntsman vs. Romney|
|12||Republican||Cain vs. Santorum|
|13||Republican||Romney vs. Bachmann|
|14||Democrat||Bachmann vs. Santorum|
|15||Democrat||Huntsman vs. Santorum|
The tasks were identical for all participants and candidate websites.
- Task 1: Find the candidate's website; provided impressions of homepage and site design
- Task 2: Locate candidate biography information
- Task 3: Find information on the issue you think is most important in this election
- Task 4: Make a $10/month campaign contribution
- Task 5: Sign up for newsletter
After completing both rounds, participants were asked which website had the better overall experience.
The results of our research indicate that republican candidate websites frequently place campaign objectives ahead of voter needs, wants and motivations.
Major findings include:
"What a loser, the guy was so serious. A little dramatic [laughing]. It's so dramatic and mushy."
"I wouldn't sign up for this [Join Team Cain] area until I decided that I want to support Herman. I didn't want to do this now."
"This is the most powerful marketing tool he's had so far."
"Just because I want the newsletter does not meant that I am a supporter and that I want to go all out."
"Enough. Enough. Enough. Make it stop."
"By god, I'm about ready to run out the door and vote for that man. Well done video. Very well done."
- The Bachmann and Cain campaigns had the best overall user experience. Bachmann's and Cain's campaign websites both won four of the five rounds in which they participated.
- Those campaigns that provided detailed information about candidate's positions on the issues in an easy-to-read format fared best. Bachmann and Cain's discussion of issues is characterized by the use of bullet points, strategic bolding, and brevity while their peers tend to rely on longer blocks of text.
- Email collection "splash" pages positioned before every candidate's homepage are annoying and confusing to participants often to the point that they leave the site entirely.
- While video drives higher engagement, most candidates have yet to develop the types of videos that voters want to see. The Perry campaign's use of video is exceptional among its peers in this regard, identifying just the right mix of content, tone and length.
- The Romney campaign website suffers from mission-critical failures that are relatively easy to resolve such as lack of a homepage navigation item and hard to identify secondary navigation in the "Issues" section. These problems kept participants from accomplishing their tasks, believing that content they sought did not exist.
- The Huntsman campaign's biography timeline of the candidate is exceptional in terms of engagement, despite being located at the bottom of the page. Participants often spent more than 10 minutes reading, and then re-reading, every word and commenting on the numerous pictures.
- Participants viewed engagement with the campaign as a funnel or process, beginning with using the website to familiarize themselves with the candidate and their stance on issues. All participants stated that they would sign up for the email newsletter if they were serious about the candidate but had not yet decided to vote for him, or didn't yet want to donate/volunteer. Those who found the "Register" area on candidate websites considered this to be a higher level of engagement that coincided with the decision to donate or volunteer. Candidate websites which tried to short cut this process by pressuring participants too early to volunteer or donate were often penalized. Candidates need to perfect this funnel process in order to effectively engage and mobilize voters. We believe this engagement to mobilization process, not social media, is the most critical online priority for all candidates in the 2012 election cycle.
- A major cause of confusion is use of the phrase "Join the Campaign". This is related to the funnel process detailed above, with participants indicating that "Join the Campaign" was too high a level of commitment when they simply wanted to get a newsletter. Similarly, while some candidates use the term "Join the Campaign" for receiving a newsletter, others used the term to indicate advanced campaigning tools for supporting the candidate.
- That many Republican candidate websites borrow elements from Obama's 2008 campaign is not lost on voters, who recognize and call out these elements in detail.
Additional information on our findings as well as findings by candidate are detailed in the full usability report along with recommended follow up actions to be taken to address issues most likely to cause voter confusion.