Thursday, 1 April 2010

The first Internet Election in the UK

The stage is set, the players are ready and the war is about to begin. All eyes are eagerly awaiting the next UK General election 2010. So, wondering what will be different in this general election as compared to the previous ones? The answer is simple, this battle to win hearts and minds will not only be fought through newspapers, radio or television but it will also be fought through a new medium, i.e. the internet. What’s more, political communications experts are cautiously predicting that this will be UK’s first ‘internet election’. Industry professionals are expecting that the web would play a key role during the elections. Portland associate partner George Pascoe-Watson said: 'This will be Britain's first general election with a significant internet contribution for the media.' (Source: PR Week)

The inspiration

Time and again, the media has been running stories that U.S. President Barack Obama's use of the Web on his way to the White House in 2008 has inspired British political parties to ramp up their digital campaigns for a general election expected in May. In my opinion, this might be true. The mastermind, Thomas Gensemer, who acted as a consultant to the Obama campaign's internet strategy, has been giving Labour and the Conservatives some web tips. (Source: The Guardian) but I think using social media alone cannot guarantee success to any political party. Although some leaders in the UK are feeling bit sceptical if the same strategy would work in the UK, the mastermind is convinced that the approach would work in the UK too. Before we delve into what these political parties are doing in the UK, let’s have a glimpse of what Obama did online to organise people and gain their support.

The brand ‘Obama’

At the heart of the Obama web strategy was MyBO (pronounced MyBeau), which worked like any other social networking site, encouraging potential voters to get a membership to this exclusive club, create an identity within it and discuss the cause with acquaintances. But there was a difference. Rather than merely join this network, passively clicking a button to donate or express an allegiance to Obama, members were encouraged to go out into the real world to knock on doors, hand out leaflets and spread the word. The site then encouraged these efforts to be recorded and shared with the online community, making the user feel empowered and on the front line of the campaign. (Source: The Guardian)

Be everywhere: Obama campaign team was everywhere online from YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. According to the Guardian, they mobilised supporters and organised communities, registering 1.5 million volunteers through and raising $600m from 3 million people. Obama even managed to pull off intimate discussions with major donors over dinner, posted to the campaign's YouTube account.

Database: Database collection is one of the biggest challenges of social media but Obama and team built a consensual database of 3m mobile numbers by promising that in return, supporters would get campaign news before the media. I think this was a very smart move because the team was able to engage the public in a transaction where in return they were providing the audience with informational value.

Apart from the above, there were many things which were done offline like creating a logo, photo shoots, merchandising in the form of cups, T-shirts, stickers, hats etc. to create a buzz around brand Obama.

How are the UK political parties using online?

Both Labour and the Conservatives have adopted the U.S. model of providing briefings for key bloggers, who write widely read online commentaries that can influence voters. Labour creates interactive graphics on campaign issues that bloggers can use on their Web sites. The Conservatives allow members to create rapid online fundraising campaigns via, and to embed adverts within their blogs. All three main parties are following the Obama model of creating a database of potential supporters and, by carefully building up details on their views and interests, targeting them with more personal messages than is possible with other media.

Personally, I am still not convinced if political parties in the UK are using the full potential of this medium not only to reach masses but also to engage people in their respective campaigns. It has been reported in the media that the Conservatives have nine full-time staff in their digital team, the Labour party five and the Liberal Democrats three. By contrast, Obama had 100 at his base in Chicago and another 40 dotted around the battleground states. The reason for hiring such a low number could be many like less freedom in fundraising, less money, and a shorter campaign.

Also, I feel that there is lack of personal touch in their campaigns; this could be because lot of focus has been given to the generation of news in the media. Instead of using social media as a tool to develop relationships with a common man, these parties are using it as a medium to get more media coverage. They should remember that they are not only talking to the media, they also need to talk to the people. For example, the Conservative digital team is spending about 20 percent of its time on Twitter, a short text-based message service, primarily to attract the attention of journalists, says the Conservatives' Head of Online Communities, Craig Elder.

Youth and Politics

Our course Director, Pam Williams, asked us in the class who all are interested in politics. It was not surprising that not even one hand stood up in the class of 30 students. When she asked the reason, different students gave different reasons, some said they are just not interested in politics because politicians don’t fulfil what they promise while some thought that politics is a dirty game and only shrewd or clever people can play it. It has been seen and observed that youth somehow seem to have been disengaged from politics, but now with the help of internet, political parties have a big opportunity in front of them to engage this young group of people. I think this would be a critical factor in determining the success of the UK General Election. How well each political party is able to mobilise this group of people and engage them as advocates is yet to be seen.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for compiling all of this Divya. I've just written about how the UK political parties are using social media in the light of last ight's live TV debates. I don't think any of them have got close to Obama's success though!

    I'd love to know your opinions if you have a minute:

    I've also just linked your blog when referring to Obama :-)