Brandon Howell (Repubclick) and Stewart Crew (Move Strategic) share their insights and lessons learned from redesigning Senator Tom Cotton’s campaign website.
Best Practice Digital: Senator Cotton isn’t up for re-election this cycle so why did the team decide to launch a new website?
Brandon Howell & Stewart Crew: The Senator’s website hadn’t been substantially updated since his first Senate campaign in 2014. It was showing age and had features (ex: a “news” page) that required constant updates with little return. We felt the time was right to overhaul the site with new copy, a new look, and several features that few if any Republican candidates are incorporating.
BPD: Opting in for texts is a very prominent call to action (CTA) throughout the website. What is the campaign’s strategy around opt-in SMS?
BH & SC: We want as many people to opt-in as possible, and our CTAs reflect that — from site banners to social media cover photos to giving people who can’t give today the option to get a text reminder in 30 days. In our experience, a dedicated and well managed SMS program is one of the (if not the) strongest tools a digital operation can have.
P.S. — shoutout to the Tatango team for being a fantastic partner in our SMS efforts.
BPD: Unlike most campaign websites, this one is not built using WordPress. What does it use and why?
BH & SC: While the original site was built on WordPress, in recent years we’ve migrated away from WordPress in favor of static site builds. We first used Hugo but have found React-based frameworks like Next.js to be a better fit for projects like these.
Static sites tend to be a great option for campaigns, since the biggest content pieces — candidate bios, issues sections, etc. — don’t change frequently. Plus, content like campaign events can be pulled in automatically from third-party services like Eventbrite.
Frameworks like Next.js give developers the flexibility to quickly add and test new features after a site is rolled out, and they provide a straightforward way to communicate with backend services and APIs, like the 30-day SMS donation reminder service we built.
Perhaps most importantly, this approach offers significant increases in performance, scalability, and security over legacy frameworks like WordPress, as there are no bulky databases to configure, PHP versions to manage, or vulnerable plugins to maintain. You no longer need to worry about a major media appearance crashing your site (potentially costing you donations), and you minimize the likelihood of a DDoS attack, compromised user account, or a zero-day exploit taking down your server.
BPD: What was the process like for designing the new site, where did you get inspiration? How was the Senator involved?
BH & SC: Our first step was a call to finalize a timeline, order of operations, and scope and goals. Here was where key decisions were made in advance of actual development.
From there, we moved into a three step process: content, design, and development.
Up first, a Content Planner. This included approved photography, links to all social accounts, and draft copy.
When the content doc was approved, we moved into the design phase. Once initial mockups were completed, we had a follow up call with the team to discuss. Following small revisions, the Senator began to review the design of the site.
Once he weighed in, we moved into actual development. A staging link was circulated for final approval, and then the site was taken live.
Before our first call, every person involved was asked to pick a website or two that they liked and be ready to discuss why. We looked at Republican sites, Democrat sites, and even non-political sites.
Our core objective was to produce a site that was true to Senator Cotton, his story, and his brand — while also having a different look and feel than most anything in the space.
BPD: For readers who are about to go through a website redesign, what do they need to keep in mind based on your recent experience?
BH & SC: Communicate clearly, set expectations early and often, establish a process, and stick to that process.
For example, up-front content planning to establish how many words you have to deal with in each section of the site, even if some of the wording is changed along the way. It’s one thing to swap in an adjective during the development phase; it’s another entirely to design around a 250 word bio that suddenly balloons to 1,000 words.