At Electoral Reform Society, encouraging our supporters to share our campaigns on social media is a crucial part of our strategy. It was with this in mind that we decided to run our own link shortening service. “Overkill,” you say? Well, there were some good reasons we decided to go down this path.
Why shorten our campaign links at all? The default URL for an Engaging Networks campaign is rather long.
It’s fine if you hide it under an email button, but it’s not so good in a tweet. Of course, Twitter now truncates links down. It’s an improvement, but I’d quite like a link to a donation page to say the word “donate” somewhere – “https://electoral-reform.netdon…” is hardly informative.
You could also use a third-party link shortener like bit.ly, but this has a few problems. Firstly, it assumes your followers are familiar with bit.ly. Non-digital natives might easily think “I thought I was donating to the ERS, who are these bit.ly people?”. Secondly, internet users have caught up to the fact that spammers love link shorteners, since they can say the link is one thing, but actually it goes somewhere else. When trying to get donations, it’s vital that people trust the whole system.
Another issue is that you are depending on a middle-man. If bit.ly goes bust, all your historic links would stop working. Something similar happened with TwitPic where only a last minute buy-out saved the photo archive.
I decided the answer would be our own URL shortener. We’d buy a short domain, and use it for all our campaign share links. A lot of thought went into what our domain should be as all the really obvious ones (ers.com) were taken. We found our first option, the new “.tools” domain on 123 Reg. Though designed for the building trade, .tools seemed apt as we are giving people the tools to build a better democracy.
Whilst going through country-level domain, we thought up things like e.rs, but one letter domains are prohibitively expensive. Also many country-specific top level domains have to be used on websites with the country. Following the same logic of .tools, we eventually found “.do,” from the Dominican Republic. Eurodns sells the .do domains, and you can use them for whatever you want. After a few confusing emails in Spanish we had our domain!
Now to set up our shortening service. The easier method is to use bit.ly’s brand tools, which will handle the redirection for a price. Although, this option doesn’t solve our middle-man issue. As we had space on our hosting account anyway, we decided to host a URL shortener ourselves using a free script called Yourls which also gives you a dashboard for saved links and statistics on their use. I followed this blog on lifehacker.com to set it up. The one addition was setting up a redirect so that the root “ers.do” domain redirected to our homepage.
Whilst you could probably pay a developer to set this up, I did it with just a bit of Googling around. It’s a good lesson in the fact that whatever your problem, someone has probably already solved it.
Doug Cowan is the Digital Communications Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. He holds an MA (hons) in Politics from the University of Edinburgh and has worked for the last five years in digital marketing for major London venues, including the Hackney Empire and Rose Theatre Kingston.