Friday, September 11, 2009

On making connections

In a comment on my post a couple of weeks back discussing the Saskatchewan NDP's new (and continuing) focus on linking to blog posts as part of its communication strategy, Garry Aldridge mentioned a few more ideas currently in the works and asked for further suggestions as to how to use the party's website to get more people involved:
We are looking at providing an online 'Your Issues' section where Party Members or Concerned Citizens could identify issues large or small that they would like to see NDP MLAs speak to more forcefully in the future.

We hope this would encourage everything from discussion of province-wide issues like Green Energy expansion to local issues such as problems with a local highway or government program cuts in a particular community.

To me, the problem with this or similar methods of two-way communication is not controlling the content; it is ensuring enough people know about the opportunity to generate a variety of content that will bring others back on a regular basis.

We would welcome your thoughts.
With that in mind, I'll take some time to discuss in some detail what model I'd most like to see from the Saskatchewan NDP's website (and encourage both critiques of my suggestions and additional ideas in comments).

I'll start by noting what the NDP is doing very well at the moment. The caucus website is both well-designed and steadily updated, with new content generated by the party most working days to reward frequent visitors (and passed along through Facebook and Twitter as well as through web updates). Meanwhile, past content is readily available through easily-navigated archives, while the new focus on blogs at least sends viewers to one available forum to discuss the issues being raised by the party.

That said, there are a few key areas where I'd think there's ample room for improvement, with varying degrees of effort required to carry them out.

Content Generation

Again, the provincial caucus already does well in this department. But that can only go so far in building a platform for member involvement (particularly when the provincial caucus' messages end up primarily being disseminated through a website which doesn't allow for comments).

Fortunately, this would seem to be a relatively easy issue to fix. I'd have to figure that riding associations, candidates and members generally are likely interested in ways to get their message out just as the party is interested in developing more widespread involvement. So it would seem to be a natural step to make a concerted effort to have as many Saskatchewan NDP voices making regular appearances on social media such as Facebook and Twitter as possible - maybe ensuring that all AGMs and nomination meetings are announced on Facebook and setting a target of at least one tweet each week from each MLA/candidate/riding association on a common hashtag, and encouraging additional involvement beyond that.

The result would be to create sourcea which doesn't require party oversight where interested readers can get a far better idea what's happening with the party province-wide than would be possible through a centralized medium - and hopefully an increase in discussion about the party to match the increase in messaging from it.

Content Distribution

While increased involvement on existing social media sites may be the low-hanging fruit in building the Saskatchewan NDP's online presence, however, I'd think the real aspiration should be to make the site into something of a social media site of its own.

On the minimalist side, that might involve setting up a regular roundup of NDP-friendly blog posts, media articles and other content from around the province, with a focus on directing traffic toward sources which don't often get picked up by major media sources (or even by bloggers who aren't in the habit of combing through local papers). That could easily build on the current effort to direct traffic to blogs - but would ideally involve both a regular time interval to reward repeat visitors (I'd hope at least daily), and a slightly broader focus than the current blog strategy.

The result would be to set up the NDP's website as an aggregator as well as a delivery point for its own content. And an effort to make the NDP into a leading source of Saskatchewan news generally strikes me as the most promising possible step in securing additional traffic.

After all, the NDP's site as it stands will only tend to attract readers whose purpose is to seek out information which originates with the party. Which inherently limits the number of people who are likely to visit.

But that could change in a hurry if the NDP is seen to offer the best available roundup of news of interest to supporters - or indeed anybody wanting to stay informed about Saskatchewan politics. And I'm not sure the goal would all that difficult to reach given the dearth of current Saskatchewan-based aggregators.

Presumably the province's local papers would be interested in alerting the NDP to their own content in order to increase their own reach. But even if not, I'd have to figure the NDP is already working to monitor its own media coverage - and surely that effort can be harnessed for the additional purpose of allowing the NDP to point website viewers toward articles of interest.

If the party wants to be even more ambitious, the step up from merely providing roundup-style lists of links to both news sources and specific posts/article would be to set up a constant stream of dynamic content through the NDP's site. Which brings us to...


Not surprisingly, the last point of concern is that of allowing for user involvement in the site. I've made the case for allowing for discussion through on-site comments before and won't belabour the point now; however, I would think that users will likely be more interested in having their comments seen and discussed by the public on the site than in simply submitting issues to the party without an obvious indication that there will be any follow-up.

That can be taken a step further by making use of wikis to develop party policies and documents. I'd hope to see that implemented for the upcoming policy review, with members receiving access to draft documents and having the opportunity to make edits to be approved or rejected by other party members on the site, and in turn by the full membership at the ensuing policy convention. (Given the attention which the policy review process is bound to receive, this would seem to be an ideal opportunity to get people signed up and involved in an ongoing discussion.)

But let's take the idea of interactivity further yet, and note the potential to turn the Saskatchewan NDP's site into a web portal and social networking site. For now, I'd suggest examining whether it's feasible to add:
- a list of RSS, Twitter and other feeds related to Saskatchewan politics, with a mechanism to check or uncheck each based on user preferences and display dynamic updates;
- messaging, scheduling and content-posting capability for members/users; and
- regular online interaction between MLAs/candidates and both members/users and the general public.

In effect, the goal would be to go beyond merely establishing the NDP's site as a news source, and instead position it as a start page for members and users by putting more of what's of interest to Saskatchewan NDP members in one place than they can find (or at least find easily) on any other site.

Of course, the downside of going to the effort of putting together a site along those lines is that people might well prefer to use other platforms, resulting in the effort creating capability which ultimately goes unused. But the potential to have the eyes of thousands of Saskatchewan citizens looking to the NDP as a primary source of news, information and online networking would seem to be more than worth the work involved.


Needless to say, I wouldn't see any one of the above options being exclusive of the others. And indeed it's not hard to see how they could reinforce each other: a tweet from a rural riding about an article which might otherwise get missed can serve as the spur to have it included in a roundup, which then gives rise to a lively discussion on the NDP's site and elsewhere. And I'm sure there are plenty of other ways to fit the above in with other ideas to improve the NDP's online presence.

In closing, though, I'll note why it is that I'd see the NDP as being the right entity to go to the trouble of putting together a site which could in theory be assembled by any number of actors.

Simply put, the NDP more than any other group, cause or institution in Saskatchewan possesses both the need and the ability to ensure that the province's citizens are well-informed and engaged in the political scene.

Looking at the other actors who could try to beat the NDP to the punch:
- the corporate media within Saskatchewan is able to see its online presence as merely another format in which to release the content it's producing anyway, and doesn't have any interest in promoting competing media;
- the Saskatchewan Party would have similar capacity, but can rely on corporate funding to try to blast its message out to the people of the province around election time, and indeed is probably best served if there isn't too much attention to what it does in the meantime;
- any individual or group with less than a province-wide base of operations will face comparative difficulties in trying to assemble enough content and reach enough people to make a web portal viable;
- any business looking to justify the development of a site on the basis of cash returns alone will have less relative incentive than a political party which can look at membership numbers, volunteerism and votes as sufficiently positive outcomes to justify operating a site without obvious financial returns (though improved party fund-raising too could well be another result if a site meets its full potential).

As a result, I'd suggest that the NDP should be taking up the opportunity to turn its website into more than just a conduit for immediate party messages (and the supporters' messages which have just started to receive attention). And the benefits of that effort could help to restore the NDP to its place on the cutting edge of citizens' involvement in their party and their province.


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