Digital political campaigning is underdeveloped and misunderstood, writes Nick Denys.
“The problem for me was that I was an experiment. From being very free on the campaign we had to deal with the real politics of winning. What had been an inspiring campaign became bogged down in the necessity of power.” These are the reflections of Alex Smith, ex-Online Communications Advisor to Ed Miliband.
Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign was an insurgency: no-one expected him to win. This allowed his campaign to experiment with social media, but, as soon as power was won, old-fashioned caution brought these innovations to a halt. Such stories are not limited to the Labour Party, as I have discovered by talking to people across the political spectrum.
During the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives ran a semi-autonomous digital unit. But while this independent status allowed the team to move quickly and innovate, their work was not joined up to the main campaign. “Digital” was boxed off as a communications experiment.
Charlotte Henry, curator of Digital Politico, observes: “UK politics as a whole dismisses digital campaigning. It is still obsessed with traditional campaigning techniques and doesn’t see how digital and traditional connects.”
A trick is being missed here, as the internet is clearly an effective place to make contact with people who are not obsessed with the Westminster bubble. Whether it is signing up to a Facebook group or forwarding an email, there are many ways for the ordinary majority to do politics.
The Obama campaign was both a blessing and a curse for digital campaigning. David Plouffe and his team showed that having a digital presence integrated into the heart of a campaign could make a positive difference, but raised expectations in some that digital could be political stardust.
As Gregor Poynton, UK Political Director at Blue State Digital, points out: “Digital is not the silver bullet that guarantees victory in any campaign. What digital can do is make your supporters more involved, get your message out in new and interesting ways and raise more money for the campaign”.
The Obama campaign had a digital person at the top table from the beginning, which is one of the reasons it performed well on all three of Poynton’s metrics. Its social media strategy fitted in with the strengths of the other parts of the organisation, and was focused on the campaign’s strategic goals.
If trust is not present, digital campaigning risks becoming all gear with no idea. There is no point creating something flashy and attractive if it doesn’t cohere with the overall campaign goals. So far, in Britain, none of the political machines have been able to create a popular campaigning platform like Obama’s.
Digital technology allows more people to get in touch with representatives. Social Media has lead to an increased expectation – across all sectors – that entities will better interact with the public. Sam Coates, former Head of Digital for the Conservative Party, observes: “The British political establishment continues to evolve at a plodding pace. The speed of evolution of political campaigns outside the traditional structure is faster.”
Over the last few years, there has been growth in the number of “issue-centric platforms”. The underlying assumption driving this development is that there are huge numbers of citizens who share the same core goals, but don’t want to engage with politics in the traditional way. At the moment, if people want to get involved in mainstream politics they have to do it on one or more Party’s terms.
These campaign sites have caused some consternation amongst politicians, with Simon Burns MP describing the amount of emails he received about NHS reform as “almost zombie-like”. MPs offices are serviced by old fashioned IT systems, and there is little training given on how to deal with digital campaigns and the new expectations placed on politicians in the internet era.
David Babbs, chief executive of campaigning network 38 Degrees, says: “Rather than trying to manage or lower people’s expectations, politicians should change the system to meet them. If a constituent gets in touch, you can start to form a relationship with them.” Are MPs and political parties logging these contacts in order to gain a better understanding of how to segment messages? If not, a key campaigning edge is being ignored.
The decision-making structures of organisations like 38 Degrees means they concentrate fire on where results can be achieved. 38 Degrees are currently partnering with consumer lobbyists Which? to collectively persuade energy companies into lowering gas and electricity prices.
Over 200,000 people have provided information to help 38 Degrees to negotiate a better deal. These members have agreed to switch en masse to the most preferential offer.
Being issue-based means that participants can focus on specific outcomes rather than having to buy into ideological dogma, even if those who run the platform hold a particular worldview. The progressive 38 Degrees will soon be joined by the conservative Right Angle and libertarian created Freedom Matters platform.
The number digital campaigning experts in the UK is tiny, unlike the US – where, for example, just last month voting profiling tool Votizen raised £750,000 in start-up funding. But the increase in direct democracy – whether that be more mayors, devolution, police commissioners or referendums – points to an increase in demand for digital campaigners.
Both the Boris and Ken mayoral campaigns have been run at arm’s length from the main party machine, allowing digital strategy to be more responsive. The rise in frequency of elections will also encourage local anti-establishment figures to challenge the status quo.
Those who make the best use of social media won’t necessarily be the ones with the best or most expensive technology; it will be the campaigners who have the right mindset.
Having a strong digital strategy means the campaign can be more comfortable with allowing freedom further down the chain. You have to trust that your supporters will want to pull in the same direction. And you have to trust that voters will understand where messages come from. Everyone should understand that without failure, there can be no success.
Three upcoming trends
Voter analytics. Both the Obama campaign and the various Republican campaigns are trying very hard to get people to sign up to their Facebook fan page and websites. This is because the more data they get, the better they can target you for votes, time or money. Facebook allows campaigns to view your connections and even post messages on your behalf.
YouTube. It is estimated that the 14.5 million hours that were spent on the offical Obama YouTube page was worth the equivalent of $50million in advertising. But Britain has outdated restrictions on political broadcasting. As the TV and PC begin to merge, there will be little difference from a consumer’s point of view between YouTube and Channel Five. Content will be (multi-platform) King.
Politics gets local. Grass-roots communications chiefs will try to dominate the local debate. They will be the first point of reply, use online to help best target offline activity and feed information back to central headquarters. Unlike the traditional party agent, these people will be self-appointed and different areas may have a number of captains. Through apps, these people will get lists of nearby voters, maps that suggest best canvassing roots and suggested best canvassing line for each door you knock on.
If the major parties get their act together, the next election could be a very interesting time indeed for technology-watchers.