Changing someone's mind about an issue or a behavior is the primary goal of an ever-increasing number of Web sites. These information-oriented sites exist not to make money, but rather to persuade people to do something: give to charity, vote for someone, stop smoking, donate blood, or volunteer to be a Big Brother. All of these causes have Web sites that try to persuade people to particular point of view. Increasingly, Web sites are an integral part of any public relations or political campaign, and are also critical to charitable organizations. If your Web site falls into this category, you are probably trying to influence public opinion or to help people with a particular problem.
Influencing Public Opinion
The Web is fast becoming the tool of choice in influencing opinions. Shallow TV ads are losing credibility with citizens and are increasingly being used to direct people to Web sites for more information, as shown in Figure 5-3. These Web sites are written to persuade people to a point of view, with calls to action that differ somewhat from those of businesses. Obviously navigational queries are important to campaigns with TV and other media ad campaigns, but all of these sites emphasize informational queries, focusing on the best search words ("springfield school budget" or "iraq war") to attract visitors.
Figure 5-3. Competing persuasion sites. Burning public issues more and more are argued by competing pro and con sites on the Web.
These influencer sites are not selling a product, but they can function the same way that lead-passing Web sites do, by moving the visitor to deeper involvement. If you are running a political campaign Web site, you can offer e-mail newsletters, forms to volunteer as a campaign worker, or the ability to donate money.
Usually, nonprofit organizations try to influence public opinion, but sometimes for-profit businesses do it, too. Verizon might want to dampen public support for workers on strike. Wal-Mart wants public support for building stores in new areas.
However, most opinion influencers are indeed nonprofit organizations. Many are political campaigns, both candidates for public office and other ballot initiatives. Bond issues, school budgets, and other ballot questions are more and more being argued by dueling pro and con sites on the Web. Other sites mobilize public opinion against government actions, ranging from anti-war sites to those opposed to building that expensive new sports stadium.
No matter what the cause, influencing opinion is a different kind of goal than driving sales. Online sales are a snap to measure, but with public opinion it is quite hard to know how successful you have been. How can you tell that a voter cast a ballot for your candidate? And how can you tell it is because of your Web site? Usually, you cannot tell, but you can use surrogates that help you measure effectiveness, much the way offline sales and leads can be tied to Web activities. Your Web site can use calls to action (sign our petition, join Citizens for Kerry, volunteer to stuff envelopes, sign up for our e-mail newsletter, and so forth) that can be counted to plot your progress.
Public relations campaigns are also different in their duration. Selling a product is usually a long-term effortyou can build your brand over the years. But PR campaigns sometimes last only a few weeks; you must ramp up quickly and might abruptly stop (on election day, for example). Traditional organic search optimization might start up too slowly to get the quick traffic boost you need. In contrast, paid search marketing (as discussed in Chapter 3) can be started at a moment's notice and can be turned off the instant it is no longer needed (such as when your candidate withdraws from the race). The immediacy of paid search (at start and finish) makes it an appealing technique for influencing public opinion when time is of the essence.
Charitable organizations have goals that are the hardest to measure of all. How can you tell whether people stop smoking, much less whether they did so because of your Web site? Just as with the influencer sites previously discussed, calls to action can serve as surrogates for your real goal and help you track something measurable. Evan Balzer, the Director of Market Research and Internet Operations for Guideposts (the publisher of the inspirational magazine of the same name), says that "helping those in need" is a primary goal of their Web site (www.guideposts.org), but that they are also beginning to attract volunteers and donors to their organization.
Obviously, raising money and becoming a volunteer are major calls to action, but there are many others. Organizations frequently measure themselves on the basis of information distributed, so the success metrics might be the number of pages viewed, papers downloaded, or free subscriptions ordered. Balzer notes that Guideposts tracks the number of downloads of their inspirational material as a key measure of their success in helping people who come to their site.
Like other persuasion-oriented sites, charities must emphasize informational queries, because that is what people at their point of need will use. You can see how "stop smoking" and "lung cancer" would be important targets for the American Cancer Society. But such a well-known organization must also consider its ranking for navigational queries such as "cancer society."
Unlike quick PR campaigns that benefit from paid search techniques, helping organizations typically have long-term missions wherein slow and steady work in organic search optimization of informational queries yield great results. Organic approaches are usually less expensive, too, so it fits more easily into constrained charity budgets.