Will it be the “web wot won it”?

In the past month alone, I have been ‘friended’, ‘followed by’ or asked to be a ‘fan’ of various politicians from across the UK & Ireland. Just as brands battle it out for internet audiences, so do politicians. The UK’s online audience is 39m – the potential for engagement is clearly enormous – do UK politicians ignore the social web at their peril?

Activists, young and not so young, gathered in the hundreds of thousands to take a stand. Using free online tools they encouraged millions of friends and strangers to stand with them. This wasn’t the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama or even Howard Dean. Instead, it was an anti- campaign to elect ‘Rage Against the Machine’ to UK Christmas Number One ahead of X-Factor’s Joe McElderry.

Whether online or offline, this battle for supremacy will be replaced as a key British talking point by another in the coming months – the impending General Election. Aside from the date, and indeed the outcome, an interesting question yet to be answered is whether internet campaigns will play the same key role in the final result.

Winning voters is at the heart of winning elections, with Britons reported to be the most active web users in Europe, prevalent social campaigning tools offers a potentially invaluable tool in this fight. Most commentators agree that 2010 will be the first UK election to be fought out, at least in part, on the internet. Prevalent tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have begun to provide a broad communication platform offering its users the ability to create big communication waves from small ripples – at almost no cost.

Everybody wants to be Barack

Tactics developed in 2004 for the Howard Dean campaign and perfected by Chris Hayes for the Obama campaign have offered political groups an arsenal of tools to energise and organise their supporters. The result has been the creation of cost effective and unprecedented community based campaigns without geographical restrictions. Leaders may, through social feeds, ‘personally’ deliver human update on events and work progress to potential supporters. It is not yet clear, however, whether the social web has broken the ranks of the UK politico.

The potential for this type of grass roots campaign in Britain has primarily been demonstrated by a small anti-racist campaign group called ‘Hope Not Hate’ rather than a mainstream political party. Six dedicated campaign staff used an email list of 6,000 people, to initiate a compelling and timely email campaigns to encourage volunteers to take tangible actions against the BNP. Action focused on letter writing campaigns to pressure advertising firms to drop BNP ads and to raise funds to publish anti-BNP leaflets. The outcome was the distribution of 3 million pieces of anti-BNP leaflets in under a month.

Small organisations with a broad national reach, such as the Liberal Democrats and even Fringe groups like the BNP, have struggled to turn their disparate popularity into geographical wins under the current electoral system. Organisations on tight budgets and those not favoured by UK mainstream media could benefit most from this low cost/ high involvement approach.

It’s not all Buzz

During the upcoming campaign, news stories that break online will drive the news agenda in part because they are read – and repeated – by the mainstream journalists. The web will also accelerate the pace at which announcements are released, analysed and challenged derailing the best intentions of the political parties to control the agenda as they have in past.

Gaff prone politicians uncomfortable with new technology must also be conscious of the ‘long tail’ of their mistakes. Mishaps made online last far longer and reach more people that those in the ‘real world’. Already one Liberal Democrat in a key target seat has suffered such a ‘gotcha’ moment. Greg Stone resigned as a candidate over inflammatory blog comments. In 2008, candidate for London Mayor Boris Johnson exposed his own transport promises as hopelessly underpriced by admitting to a member of the public with a flip cam that they would cost ten times his own estimates.

Like marketers jumping on social networks with Social Media Campaigns – Politicians must be conscious of hijacking communal spaces with messages that do not interest their new ‘friends’.  Online political debates, like those offline, generally attract people with well formed opinions. This can put off outsiders and as such those who are not interested may continue to ignore the politics’ new online arenas.

So how are they doing?

Looking at their current offerings, the UK political parties start to Election 2010 is not overly impressive. It does, however, demonstrate two different approaches. Labour have focused on unofficial grassroots up social campaigns whereas a Tory top down approach has been criticised for ‘broadcasting’ one-way traffic of party alerts and links. Adoption for both parties has been slow, neither leader has reached 20,000 followers and few sitting politicians have even taken to starting Twitter accounts[1]. This cautious start may, in part, be understandable. All parties are used to operating in an atmosphere of discipline and control and social media platforms are anything but manageable.

The mailing list, which Obama managed well, will be of key importance. MyConservatives and Labourlist see both parties launching ‘Me too’ versions of my.barackobama.com to build such contact bases.

Failure to manage Search Optimisation, a hugely important gateway, continues to be a significant public relations mistake. If voters can’t find the information that the parties are putting out, the question must be what’s the point? Effort is needed to protect terms such as terms like “David Cameron” and “Gordon Brown”, searching both currently returns unofficial and negative personal blogs at highly ranked positions. Had the two major parties paid particular attention to the Obama campaign, they would be offering ample relevant, interesting and most importantly positive content for the searches that interest users online.

Can you rely on your friends?

While it is clear that the web is going to play a bigger part in the 2010 than it did in 2005 election the internet still won’t determine the outcome. Social media may have helped the political elite build relationships with people not engaged in politics; perhaps the greatest factor in whether online views and friends correlate to votes may come back to age.

The broadband generation might be more capable of receiving political messages than before, but they traditionally don’t vote.  The internet has provided a new route into the lives of young people but the feeling of failure in some parts generated by the Obama presidency and more widely following the UK expense scandal may see younger voters remain harder to reach than even a few years ago.

Rather than a failure of the tools of social networking, I would argue, this should be seen as a failure of the individuals and organisations to generate the pixie dust necessary to inspire the loyalty and hope which the Obama campaign benefitted from so successfully. As yet, politicians have failed to demonstrate the political fundamentals or organisational understanding to deal with their new challenges. Ultimately, if one party does manage to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the web, they may live to regret this mistake.

So to return to our introduction “Will it be the ‘web wot won it’?”- well, probably not but it should have been.

[1] Tweetminster.co.uk shows that the Labour Party has more incumbent MPs on Twitter (65) than the Conservatives (16) opposition while the Liberal Democrats have 23. In terms of prospective MPs on Twitter, there are  more Conservatives (78) than Labour (63) or Liberal Democrats (42).

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