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Why social media will not win the election

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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).

Here’s why:

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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Written by davidtiltman

March 22, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Social media is crap – AdAge says so

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Awesome article on AdAge this week on the limits of social media. It’s by a guy called Jonathan Salem Baskin, and he warns brands against blindly piling cash into social media and out of channels which, though unfashionable, have at least delivered results in the past. He also takes a swipe at the social media ‘gurus’ forever lashing out at the luddite marketers who just ‘don’t get it’. Here’s a choice excerpt:

I know all too many CMOs who find criticizing the social-media lobby something like debating the dialectic with avowed Marxists – you’re never right when the very premise of your existence is wrong, and it gets old being told that your visceral concerns are a result of your failure to perceive class struggle or to tweet enough. Nobody with responsibility for a bottom line has ever felt comfortable with social media as a replacement for traditional advertising. Arguing that consumers “buy more” if you “sell less” just smacks of another five-year economic plan for the glorious motherland.

While he’s obviously hamming it up a bit for effect (as I have done with the headline), he makes a very good point – and one that goes for media owners as well as brands.

A case in point – my own dabblings in Twitter last year for Media. When we set up a Twitter account we were just experimenting with the medium, watching what other media owners were doing and seeing what worked for us. Coming from a publishing background, where what you want is people reading the words you’ve sweated blood over, we began by pushing out our headlines with links to the stories.

At the time, I remember being told by the experts that this was the wrong way to go about it. That we wouldn’t be respected if all we did was pump out links. That we were no better than an RSS feed. One of our competitors even tweeted that we had completely misunderstood the site. But what did we actually want to do with Twitter? While it’s great to make a few people feel warm and fuzzy and engaged, we didn’t have the staff to devote to doing this consistently. They were too busy doing proper journalism. The stuff they’re paid for. What we wanted was for people to read our copy, driving clicks that allowed us to sell ads.

A year on? When I left Media the Twitter feed was one of the website‘s biggest drivers of referral traffic. We abandoned automated headline/link tweets early on to be a bit more ‘bloggy’, but the purpose of the feed is still to generate clicks through to the content. Funnily enough, most serious publishers do exactly the same. And it seems to work with what a lot of people in our business use Twitter for – finding and sharing interesting information.

And the competitor? Funnily enough they’re pumping out links to their own content now.

So kudos to Mr Baskin for having the cojones to suggest the Emperor may not be as fully clothed as we’re told.

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Written by davidtiltman

February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm