The E-Campaign

The Click of a Computer Mouse is as Important as Kissing Babies in Today's Politics

By Sherry Greenfield | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 06.06.14 – Feature, People & Places

Phil Graves
Mark Stevanus
Blaine Young
Nick Damoulakis
Jan Gardner

There is the old way of running a political campaign—and by “old” we are talking just a few years ago. In this world, a candidate for local office would press the flesh at a few fundraisers, plant yard signs all over town, do some media interviews and organize a staff to help raise more money and get out the vote. The formula has gone through some tweaks, but the broad strokes remained the same for decades.

And while newspaper ads, campaign signs and old-fashioned handshaking still dominate political campaigns, the recent proliferation of social media and other electronic communications have greatly disrupted the recipe for running for office as websites, Facebook, Twitter and other e-venues are now an essential part of a candidate’s communications strategy.

“Social media is so important for candidates to get their message out there,” says Mark Stevanus, owner of Conquest Web Design and Hosting, a full-service graphic design, web design and web hosting company in Frederick. “They can use the social media tools to their advantage and drive people to their websites. It plays a major part in their campaigns, and they can use it as a good marketing tool. People can make donations and find out what you are doing.”

The use of social media as a campaign leapt into national prominence with the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, who used social media particularly to energize young voters and communicate his message. Obama had more “friends” on Facebook and Myspace and more “followers” on Twitter than his Republican opponent John McCain.

But even locally, candidates realize the importance of getting connected, and many put their campaigns in the hands of tech and web agencies in Frederick County. These local firms boast cutting-edge technology, visionary marketing skills and creative production designs to grab the voters and spread a candidate’s message. Stevanus says the explosion of social media has made it easier and faster for political candidates to relay their message to the masses.

“Using social media makes it much easier for [candidates] to be the voice of their communities,” Stevanus says. “Where before, [media] interviews were where they had to work to get their message out there, now social media gets the word out to a larger audience than ever before.”

The Hired Guns

When a candidate comes to Conquest Web Design and Hosting, Stevanus sets them up with an account and then the work begins. “We sit them down and go over the basics. They usually come in and ask, ‘How do I start, and what is the best way to have a social media presence?’ We tell them that their website has to be up to par and they have to have the right message. We guide them through the whole thing,” he says.

Phil Graves, owner and principal designer of All Saints Media in Frederick, is currently working with several candidates running in Frederick County’s June 24 primary election, providing Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and websites. “It takes five minutes to set up a Facebook page,” Graves says. “You put up a logo, cover photo and picture. We set up all that. We can then link their website to Facebook and Twitter. It’s all-inclusive.”

Because some of the candidates may not reach the general election, Graves sets the fee at $1,000. “I gave a low rate at first, then if they make it through the primary, we’ll update the website for an additional fee,” he says.

In his first time running for public office, Bud Otis, a Republican candidate for one of two at-large County Council seats, turned to Graves for help with his website and Facebook page. “I gave him the content and he developed the layout and design of my site,” Otis says. “He is also very helpful with my ad campaign, as well. I can’t say enough good things about Phil.

“I have 119 friends on my Facebook page and that’s not bad for a new site,” Otis adds. “And my webpage is helpful in raising funds, as folks can click on my webpage and give through PayPal. … By the way, everyone says I have the best website and most complete message of any of the candidates for county council. All of this is thanks to Phil Graves.”

Graves says when Otis first came to him he was unfamiliar with Facebook. “We set it up so his wife and daughter could post things for him,” Graves says. “They may be posting, but it looks like it’s coming from [him].”

Frederick County Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young, a Republican candidate for county executive, has one word to describe Graves’ help with his website, “wonderful.” Young’s website includes video, campaign speeches, endorsements, achievements, information on volunteering and how to donate money.

But there are some web design companies that won’t work with candidates in an effort to avoid political partisanship. “We have done PACs (political action committees) in the past, but we’ve been low key, and we don’t want to be affiliated with any specific candidate,” says Jon-Mikel Bailey, co-founder of Wood Street, a web design and development firm in Frederick.

Nick Damoulakis, president of Orases, an interactive web agency in Frederick, says his company has helped both state and local candidates, though he would not divulge any names. “We put together a social media package and a full digital strategy,” he says. “When it comes to the website, we can set up a live chat where people can talk about the candidates and discuss issues.” Damoulakis says when a candidate comes in, they typically ask for help building a website, photos, videos, social media and blogs. “They want the full digital experience,” he says.

On Their Own

But not every candidate has turned to a local tech agency for help. Some have enlisted friends and family. And, some are relying on their own tech skills to establish an online presence.

“I am not using any tech company to help with my campaign,” says M.C. Keegan-Ayer, a Democrat running for a County Council seat in District 3. “I am doing this myself with the help of my daughter, who is a student at Hood College. She is my ‘tech support,’ if you can call her that. We are using GoDaddy as the template for the website, which is still under construction.”

Likewise, Stephens Dempsey, a Republican candidate for a County Council seat in District 2, has built his own campaign website. “I built and maintain my own using Google sites,” Dempsey says. “It’s free, since I have my own [IT consulting] LLC.”

Jan H. Gardner, former Frederick County Commissioners’ president and the lone Democrat running for County Executive, turned to a familiar face for help. “I had a friend who professionally works in media help set up my webpage, so I did this at little cost,” Gardner says. “I also went to a social media training [seminar], as did a couple of other candidates and volunteers on my campaign. This was very helpful.”

This time around, Gardner, who is familiar with traditional campaigning, having run successfully for County Commissioner three times, is expanding to social media to connect with voters and supporters. “I am using social media a lot, particularly Facebook,” she says. “I also use Twitter, LinkedIn and I have a webpage. I have found social media to be a great way to get out my message and to do so in a timely way.”

Gardner is also posting video messages on Facebook and her website. “People have loved the videos. Some of my videos have had 5,000 hits plus 25 or so shares. So they are getting a lot of views.” Susan Reeder Jessee, a Democrat for one of two at-large County Council seats, turned to her son for help. He “has a degree in digital media and I have experience setting up social media pages as well,” she says. “A friend of mine that used to live in Frederick for many years assisted with my website, and I was and do update everything myself.”

After Election Day

The use of social media and interactive websites does not end when the election is over. With a few tweaks, that campaign website can be quickly transformed into a politician’s networking website that’s designed to strategically reach out to their constituents.

“When the campaign is over, we will flip it for those that get into office,” Graves said. “If they’re in [legislative] session we have to take down the part asking for donations, because they can’t accept donations when they are in office. But when the session is over, it can go back up.”

A political website can be a powerful tool to reach and engage constituents. Policy issues and key messages can be posted on a website immediately. “They can post press releases and agendas,” Damoulakis says. “We’re also starting to see a lot of crowdsourcing, which allows the world a chance to help in the solving of a problem. [A politician] might put out a bill on their website and people within the political party can help fine tune it. … People can vote a bill up or vote it down.”

It’s unlikely campaign signs will cease to blanket the landscape, or print ads touting the virtues of a candidate will disappear. Old-school grassroots campaigning and direct mail will also likely continue. But the electronic sphere can only grow and, as a result, tech companies will continue to be in high demand as they help candidates navigate the new world of campaigning.