How to run a campaign website (or not)

If you’re thinking of running a campaign — to raise money for an event, to oppose the closure of something, to raise awareness of a world problem, whatever — then you’ve probably already thought about a campaign website. So — should you have one, if so, what should it be like, and how do you do it?

To web or not to web?

Should a campaign have a web-site? The obvious answer is ‘yes’, but the better answer is ‘why?’ At its simplest, a website is an online calling card with the name of the campaign, a very brief description of what its trying to accomplish, and contact details. Ninety percent of people who go on campaign websites are looking for these three pieces of information — name, brief description, contact details. If your campaign is just based around your village or street, then a website may not be what you need. Usually, though, a website is a good investment. You still need the ‘why?’, though, because this determines what you need your website to do, and how long it will take to do it.

Three kinds of sites

There are basically three approaches to websites

  • Static pages — ‘brochureware’
  • Active site
  • Interactive site

The classic (ie, hopelessly outmoded but still sometimes the right choice) website is Static Pages. Essentially, this is your brochure online, hence the disparaging term ‘brochureware’. If you just need a way of getting out some basic information, then static pages is possibly the best way to go — although (see below), it’s still worth going with some kind of Content Management System to maintain it.

An active site, like a blog, is one which is regularly updated with new articles and information. It takes on more of a magazine feel, and is useful for keeping a sense of activity in a campaign. If you are going to do an active site, I strongly recommend using a Content Management System. If you have thirty articles up, and someone points out that the font is illegible, then, with a Content Management System you can fix it for all the articles in one go.

An interactive site is one where the site changes based on user involvement. The simplest way for this to happen is to allow users to register and post comments. This can be done for you automatically through something like WordPress — see below for ‘How to do it’.

An interactive site also opens the door to other things. For example, you can have a mailing list server running on it, or a petition.

Refinements for campaigns

Depending on your type of campaign, you may be interested in the following:

  • Gathering contact details of supporters
  • Contacting supporters regularly
  • Receiving online donations
  • Linking to your other sites, such as JustGiving and Facebook
  • Playing video, for example from YouTube
  • Uploading and hosting podcasts

All of these would put you in the territory of an interactive site, and you would be very strongly advised to pick a Content Management System (see below) to do this, adding the extra functions through plugins. You can pay upwards of £50,000 for a content management system, or you can have one for free. Sometimes the very expensive ones are just free ones rebadged. If you’re running a campaign, my advice would be to go for the free ones, which are constantly updated and improved by their user community.

To add most of the functions above you would install plugins. However, sites like PayPal and YouTube also offer you code snippets which you can paste onto your page ad hoc. Beware, though — unless you know exactly what you are doing, the result is liable to be quite messy.

Remember that (in the UK) if you are gathering personally identifiable information, you have to comply with the Data Protection Act. Check carefully with the Information Commissioner’s Office site that what you are doing is legal — if you are campaigning against something, it would be a shame for the people you are campaigning against to be able to have you closed down because of information breaches.

Facebook and other social media

If you have a Facebook page, do you need a website? Basically, yes, though you can connect the two tightly together to avoid you having to do Facebook-type things on your website. You need to be able to tell people a unique web address which they can remember. ‘Find us on Facebook’ is as likely to put them in the way of another campaign with a similar description, or they may just get distracted by something else. Also, lots of people don’t actually use Facebook, even if they have a Facebook profile.

Trying to replicate Facebook functionality on your own site, though, is a bit of a waste of time. People who like social networking are probably already on Facebook, and they don’t necessarily want to join your social networking site to do more of it. There are lots of plugins available, either in Facebook, or through a content management system, to link your site to it efficiently.

Connecting your site to Twitter is also generally regarded as worthwhile, though this depends a bit on whether the people you are campaigning with use Twitter. Just because people are following your Tweets, it doesn’t mean they are actually furthering your campaign.

Again, why?

In my experience, you have to keep asking yourself why you are running a website. Websites take on a life of their own, and you can end up spending more time and energy on the site than you actually do on the campaign. Prune your site regularly, make sure it stays up to date, and don’t be afraid to ditch parts of it (by removing them, not by abandoning them) which are little used. The web moves on. Ten years ago, every little site had its own discussion forum. These days, only massive sites can maintain active discussion communities, as most of the online social networking has moved onto Facebook. Just five years ago, MySpace was bigger than Facebook in many communities. Today it is not.

How to do it?

You need three things to run a website. They are:

Domain name

Lots of companies will now register a domain name for you for a very small sum. My personal choice is WiserDomains.co.uk, but that’s largely because I’ve used them for a few years and never had a problem. Almost any other would, I’m sure, be just as good. Most of the generic terms have been taken long ago. Look for a name which is short, memorable, and identifies what you are doing.

Web host

Once you have a domain name registered, you need a web host. There are plenty of companies that will give you a basic free web-hosting package, largely in the hope that you will later upgrade to one of their paid packages. I personally use 5quidhost.co.uk, but it’s worth having a bit of a scout round. In most cases, you will want a host that supports LAMP, which means Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP. You don’t really need to know what any of those things are, but their importance will become clear in a moment. Generally speaking, look for something that offers cPANEL, which is a way of easily controlling all of your site’s resources, and also offers instant installation of scripts — more on scripts shortly.

Your pages (ie, the site people see)

Once you have your webhost sorted out, you need to follow their instructions (and the domain registrar‘s) to point your domain name at the host. This takes about 72 hours to complete, though you can generally get at your site after about 24 hours or less.

To get your pages up there, the bulldozer approach is to get a web-design package (or make the pages in Word and export them as HTML) and then upload them using FTP to the web host’s server.

I strongly recommend against this approach, which is what we were all doing in the late 1990s.

A far better approach is to install a ‘script’ (don’t read anything into the word ‘script’, which doesn’t remotely mean what you might think it would mean). ‘Scripts’ are essentially software applications which runs on the webserver. For running a website, the kind of script you want to install is blogging software, such as WordPress (as per this site) or a Content Management System such as Drupal. Both of these, and several other alternatives, are free installs, and, using the magic of cPANEL, can be installed for you automagically. To do this, once you have your cPANEL open, look for something called Fantastico or Softaculous (it will be one or the other, not both). Whichever of these you have will allow you to install and configure WordPress or Drupal or one of another set of choices.

With WordPress, Drupal or one of the alternatives, you can easily write stories and upload pictures from your web browser, and you can change the entire look of the website by picking a different theme, as well as installing additional functionality by adding plugins, which are also free (or, almost all of them are).

Traps to avoid

Don’t lift photographs or text from other parts of the web, unless you know that they are ‘Creative Commons‘, public domain, or otherwise released for your use. It’s illegal, and it discredits your site. By the same token, if you use a picture in good faith and then someone tells you that you are breaching their copyright, take the picture down.

Don’t libel people online — you are still liable for everything you publish. If you get a complaint from someone that you have misrepresented them, misquoted them, used their trademark without permission or otherwise breached their copyright, just remove the offending text and inform them that you have done it. In fourteen years running this site and its predecessors, this has happened to me three times. You may not agree with the complaint, but it’s generally much easier to comply, possibly making your point in a different way. Remember — time spent defending your website is time you are losing for campaigning.

Make sure that someone else in your campaign has a full set of passwords, including your cPANEL password. The commonest cause of ‘dead’ campaign sites is that the person who originated them moved on, and the passwords are no longer available.

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