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Back in January, I was asked by a marketing consultant how important I thought digital would be in the upcoming UK general election. He obviously expected me to gush about how important Twitter/Facebook/YouTube would be, and seemed slightly shocked when I suggested that for all the noise around social media, the election could be more traditional than we thought. And a recent lunch with an agency boss working on one of the party’s campaigns confirmed to me that the parties recognise that online engagement can only be the start.
So it was with interest that I read the piece in this week’s Economist that flagged the limitations of social media as a political tool. It makes a number of good points, including the argument that Twitter is good for reaching journalists, but email reaches the actual voters. The upshot is that developments such as myconservatives.com, WebCameron and the left-leaning blogs can have an impact (including galvanising activists), but are, for now, unlikely to win a party an election on their own (though all parties still have to engage in these channels, otherwise they lose share of voice to their rivals).
1. British politics is not US politics. The Obama campaign in 2008 made everyone aware of the political implications of social media. But the UK political environment is very different. We have become more presidential, but we do not elect presidents; we elect parties. We do not have the intense build-up of primaries – party leaders are decided by their parties, and are not chosen as part of the campaign build-up. That means political discourse between parties and the general public is generally less focused on a single point in time (an election) and more focused on general points-scoring. Elections can be called any time within a five-year parliament by the prime minister, so the campaigns are shorter, sharper and often more tactical.
2. Even for Obama, social media was only the start. The Obama social media drive served to establish him as a candidate and gave him considerable resources to mount a challenge. It did not on its own win him the election. TV, print, radio, outdoor and email (the 21st century equivalent of shoe leather) were all major parts of his campaign. This blend of digital evangelising and old-school politicking was developed in the primaries and continued into the main election campaign.
3. Social media is great at knocking things, but it’s far harder to build political enthusiasm. The parties have shown pretty deft use of some social sites to respond instantly to their rivals’ moves and to discredit them. John Prescott has proved an ace Twitterer, and Labour’s activists have been pretty effective at mocking the Tories’ campaigns via spoof posters. Any slip by the parties, once magnified by the echo chamber of Twitter et al, could damage their reputation; but success can be far harder to shout about and publicise, especially given the levels of cynicism there already are around politicians. The TV debates featuring the three party leaders will be fascinating – we’ll see how the successes and failure on the night are reflected in cyberspace.
4. It’s easier to build enthusiasm around single issues than complex political messages. The Facebook campaign behind Rage Against the Machine at Christmas showed how single issues (such as ‘don’t let Simon Cowell be Christmas number one’) can thrive within social media. Arguably, Obama’s ‘Change’ message gained momentum like a single issue and only later had to concern itself with actual policies. In the US, of course, the campaign is focused on the president. British political parties remain strange coalitions of interests, and presenting them like a single issue is far harder. You might buy into David Cameron, for example, but still have your doubts about Nicholas Winterton. A British general election puts them both up for the vote simultaneously. It’s interesting that Cameron has attempted a ‘Change’ message without being able to build it into a cause the way Obama did. He’s not personally as engaging, and he’s held back by his party.
That said, Labour has shown signs of using a single-issue approach – for example, its recently launched campaign to save Sure Start children’s centres from spending cuts.
5. The election will be won in key marginals. Social media campaigns have been causing some interesting headlines at a national level, but actually British governments are made and broken in a relatively small number of marginal seats. And a vote in these seats goes not just to a national party, but to a local politician. That means local issues and local personalities can come into play, factors that are below the national radar but need actual on-the-ground campaigning to address.
6. Old people vote more. Fact. Purely on an age basis, the more likely you are to use social media, the less likely you are to vote. And for the reasons already stated, there’s no sign of a sudden rush of young voters into the polling stations a la Obama.
Overall, this election promises to be the most fascinating since 1997, and the marketing tactics at its heart have become far more sophisticated. The rise of social media has made the national-level PR battle far more interesting, but the eventual incumbent of Downing Street will have to use more old-fashioned tactics as well.
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