Building Political Sites and Gearing up for the Elections on WordPress

Ahead of the upcoming U.S. midterm elections in November, we spoke with Ben Ostrower, Principal and Creative Director of Wide Eye Creative, a creative web design & development studio who has built some of the recent entries of high profile WordPress sites in the government space. 

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

Why WordPress? There are so many players in the CMS space, especially in the political realm, why do you choose WordPress as your go-to software?

When I started Wide Eye, we were doing almost exclusively work with Drupal. It filled a lot of our client’s needs and it’s a great tool for some purposes, but it was always cumbersome. The way Drupal was built, it just kept imposing limits on design, which, as a designer, was incredibly frustrating. My developers would always say: “no, it’s really hard to do that because it’s not the way ‘xyz’ module is built”. It was as though the materials we were using to build a house were guiding the design and architecture, not the other way around.

When I first started trying WordPress in early 2010 or so, it was already fairly mature and I wondered immediately why I hadn’t been using it earlier. The structure of it was just incredibly intuitive to me – as though it had been created by designers, not just developers. Suddenly it became much more possible to realize my own creative vision for a project.

On top of it, and almost more importantly, it was more user-friendly for our clients. People would just immediately “get” the interface and how content can be controlled and structured. I saw clients generally become more self-sufficient with the management of their own sites, and our exposure to followup questions, bug-fixes and hand-holding went way down. Since then, while we’ve used Drupal for a handful of select database projects, we’ve used WordPress for literally everything else – every campaign site we’ve done since 2010 has been on WordPress. It’s been a great marriage.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi

What can you do using WordPress that you can’t do using locked-down / proprietary software, like NationBuilder?

We pride ourselves on intimately tailoring each site to a project’s goals. WordPress, especially with the Advanced Custom Fields plugin integrated, gives us the ability to deliver really granular control over page templates to a client — i.e. turning a banner image on and off, changing the color of a button, toggling the positioning of elements, the list goes on…Plus, we have a wealth of excellent plugins available to us that we can use to quickly extend functionality. Ultimately, when we train clients on the backend of their site, we consistently hear them say: “Wow. I’ve never had that level of control before.” That level of customization just isn’t as possible with a proprietary framework. NationBuilder is an impressive tool and a good solution for some campaigns, but, for us, it’s really analogous to the difference between a fully bespoke suit versus tailoring a suit purchased off the rack.

You have a great client list and you work with some high profile politicians. What sites have you done that are most exciting to you?

We love all of our clients – that’s not hyperbole, but the most exciting ones are when we work with a campaign or organization that trusts us as a creative partner and is willing to take risks and try new things. Brandon English and his great team at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for example, actively collaborated with us to innovate the way stale old email sign up forms have worked for years. Now a multi-field form operates in the space of a single input field, sending the input data to Blue State Digital’s tools with each click forward instead of form fields stacked one on top of another with a big button below. As a client, they truly understood the value of user friendliness and the capacity that good design has to fuel better, more successful results.

Chris Coons’ Senate campaign in Delaware is another client that worked with us on something that we call a “smart website” – calls to action that change for a user based on their prior engagement with the campaign. That was really fun.

Our other great scenario, as least from a design perspective, is where we have the challenge of striking a difficult creative balance for a client: i.e. “we want to look simultaneously polished and savvy, but also modest and grassroots”, “conservative and classical, but also innovative and cutting-edge”, etc… That’s always fun.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons

U.S. Senator Chris Coons

Do you have any tips and tricks to share that could help other developers and designers who are building websites in the area of politics and non-profit?

  1. Don’t approach political and non-profit projects with any less of a standard of quality than you would for a corporate client like Nike or Apple. Quality matters. Audiences are more sensitive and savvy than ever before to design and functionality – when something is subpar (doesn’t look good or doesn’t work the way a user expects), it diminishes the campaign’s or organization’s message.
  2. KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid – one of the first things you learn in filmmaking class. Keep your message simple and your actions focused. By packing lots of information and options in a small space, you’re diminishing the impact of everything.
  3. Don’t be afraid to provoke emotion with your designs – you’re appealing to a visitor to take action. You can’t just expect them to click a donate button because it’s there, you need to tell them “why”.
  4. Interaction matters. With the rise of CSS3 and HTML5 over the last several years, use animation to give visitors the sense that the website is alive and responsive. Buttons should react when you hover, form fields should highlight, etc.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's Off The Sidelines

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Off The Sidelines

Look 5-10 years into the future – what do you think the future will look like when it comes to technology in politics, campaigns and in the government arena?

1. Websites, ads and apps will continue to become smarter. Messages and calls to action will be more and more targeted and segmented based on a visitor’s profile. By 2016, the era of visitors all receiving the same general, default call-to-action on a website landing page will be over.

2. Mobile will continue to become even more important. Designers and developers will need to stay ahead of the curve on that.

3. Ads, emails and appeals for people to take action and donate will only become more and more ubiquitous. There are going to be more and smarter ways to reach people.

4. Not that it’s not happening already, but digital campaigns will be more and more driven by data, analytics and math.

Mark Dayton, Governor of Minnesota

Mark Dayton, Governor of Minnesota

What new technology are you using that you’re most excited about? 

There are a lot of technologies that we’re keeping a close eye on. We’re really excited to play with NGP VAN’s new API, and we’d really like to be building more around Google’s open source civic tools.

My incredibly talented Lead Developer (and JavaScript Ninja) Nick Cerminara considers the JSON API WordPress Plugin the most exciting WordPress technology we’ve been toying with lately. With it, we’re able to do any WP_Query and get a nice and pretty JSON endpoint with almost no custom work involved. This is huge for application development because it allows us to leverage WordPress as an out-of-the-box backend. Down the road, this makes using Front-End Frameworks like Angular JS a lot more practical with WordPress where they’re typically intended only for single page applications. Combining these is going to bring a whole new and unprecedented liveliness to WordPress sites.

Thank you to Ben – to learn more about Wide Eye Creative or to see some more case studies, please visit their website! Visit the WordPress.com VIP site for more information about WordPress in Government or get in touch.

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