Online Campaign Contributions Keep Clicking

Ever try to purchase something online, only to be frustrated by how much time it takes to get through the process?

One company says that is exactly the experience facing web-savvy users who want to donate money online to the 2008 presidential candidates.

"Speed is the main issue," said Matt Poepsel, vice-president of performance strategies at Gomez, Inc, a Massachusetts-based company that evaluates the performance of web sites.

The company usually evaluates web sites for banks, credit card companies and online retailers such as eBay, Amazon and Best Buy for profit. But they recently used their software to test the '08 campaigns' donation process.

Campaign Cash Finds a Need for Speed

"When we saw candidates flocking to the web, we thought this will be interesting to see if they're delivering experiences that are on par with the commercial industry and they're just not," said Poepsel.

The 2008 presidential campaign website of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. is the fastest place to donate online, while the website of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. is the slowest, according to Gomez's test of the campaign websites.

"Barack Obama's website takes ten times longer than Hillary Clinton's website to go through in keep you waiting for that donation process -- that's a big difference," said Poepsel.

The study found that, on average, the online donation process took 3.3 seconds for online contributors to Clinton's website, but took 33 seconds for contributors of Obama's campaign.

That thirty second difference hasn't seemed to hurt Obama online.

In the first quarter of presidential fundraising newcomer Obama raised an astonishing $25 million, $6.9 million of which came in online. Senator Clinton, by comparison, raised $26 million for both the primary and general election, $4.2 million of which arrived via the Internet.

Nevertheless, Poepsel insisted, "They're just not consistent. These are not complicated sites compared to what we see in the commercial world."

"What is new to the candidates as far as going online, it's not new to us," he said, "we have the same expectations on those candidate websites as we do when we go anywhere else on the web," said Poepsel. "It should download quickly, should be highly available, consistent performance, don't keep me waiting."

By comparison, Poepsel said, online shoppers take, on average, about six to nine steps to get to the point where it's time to pay. Donating to a campaign only takes an average of three steps but Poepsel insists, "The retailers are outperforming the candidates' websites even with the additional time it usually takes to complete a purchase online."

One of the fastest "full retail experiences", as Poepsel calls it, is on the website of JC Penney, which had a March average of 6.29 seconds -- taking users from downloading the homepage to the point at which they enter their personal information and credit card number.

Amazon.com -- the popular online book retail website -- had a average of about 16 seconds. The Gap had one of the slowest response times, averaging almost 31 seconds in March, according to Gomez, Inc.

Obama's campaign questions the findings of the Gomez study, using those impressive online totals as proof the Illinois senator is connecting with voters on the web.

"This overwhelming response, in only a few short weeks, shows the hunger for different kind of politics in this country and a belief at the grassroots that Barack Obama can bring out the best in America to solve our problems," said Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the Obama campaign.

Money Slow to the Bank

Senators Clinton and Obama weren't the only candidates targeted for sites slow to gobble up willing campaign cash.

The study also found former Governor Mitt Romney's, R-Mass., online campaign donation process took four times as long as that of nomination rival Sen. John McCain's, R-Ariz., site.

Users spent, on average, 13 seconds to get to the donation process on Romney's website, but McCain's website took about four seconds, according to the Gomez study.

McCain took in $1.6-million online of his $13-million first-quarter haul. Romney had the best record of any of his '08 Republican rivals in fundraising on the Internet. The former Massachusetts governor raised $3.3-million through his campaign website an additional $3.8 million through "Quick ComMitt" -- the campaign's online fundraising mechanism.

Internet's Role Grows in White House Hunt

Fundraising online is nothing new.

Web observers largely credit McCain's 2000 campaign as the first presidential campaign to tap into big money online.

What began in 2000, was refined in the 2004 campaign, when former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's campaign, using online groups to connect with web-based fundraising and support, raised millions from individual donors.

The 2008 presidential campaign has blown the political potential of the Internet wide open. Candidates are using their own websites, bogs, and social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace to get their message out using as many online channels as they can.

It's a sign that the candidates are using the Internet to control their message and reach an increasing number of web-savvy voters.

"Candidates are going to continue to exploit the various web channels as a way to support the messages that are coming out through the mainstream media, as well as for some people, the web is the primary means of their getting their information," said Poepsel.

The company said they are not being paid by any campaign to conduct the studies, and pledged to update their findings throughout the campaign when web traffic might be high, such as during the primaries, the debates, or the conventions.

The study was conducted over 48 hours March 30-April 1. Gomez, Inc. said they use independent software on 10 different computers from across the country, using different service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, that hit the candidates' websites in order to test their responsiveness, how quickly it takes the homepage to download on a website and how long it actually takes to actually execute the online process.