The recent announcement that the Conservative Party will be launching an official party blog has highlighted the question of what the best blogging strategy is for political parties.
Although the Conservative Party has amongst its members and supporters some of the most successful political bloggers in the UK, the party’s official use of blogging has been very thin outside of individual blogs from prominent MPs. Indeed, Iain Dale recently highlighted the rather odd decision to remove links to himself and ConservativeHome from the official Conservative Party website.
Blogging on the Labour side has been much lower profile, with as little official blogging as from the Conservative and less success in the blogging activities of its members and supporters who – although producing some excellent content – just do not have the same overall profile as their Conservative rivals. Again, it is the blogging of a few individual MPs that does most to rectify matters. Labour does, though, not only provide links to Labour bloggers from their official website, but the links are there right on the front page.
The Liberal Democrat approach has been rather different from the other two main parties – and (although as the man responsible for our blogging strategy, you might expect me to say this!) rather more effective.
We use a range of official blogs to cater to various niche audiences: such as those interested in Al Yamamah and dodgy arms deals or in the state of the armed forces. Catering to niche audiences in this way has many advantages – people are often far more interested in specific topics than in a general site about politics – though it also means that the flow of posting tends to fluctuate a lot during the year, which can make building up an audience much harder. (As an aside, WordPress is also used to power various sites which are really closer to conventional websites rather than blogs in the usual sense of the term, such as Nick Clegg’s site.)
But there is far more to the party’s blogging than this, including encouraging more party members and supporters to blog. In this respect, we’ve gone further than that question of provision of facilities for bloggers at party conferences. There is the annual Blog of the Year competition (a semi-official competition run by mixing of the official and unofficial party), which helps highlight talent and build up a sense of community, and also a regular series of interviews by bloggers of senior MPs.
From some official party involvement initially to get the interviews going, these are now all organised by bloggers themselves (and Richard Flowers, who is the lead-organiser does an excellent job) and both our previous and current party leaders see these blogger interviews as a normal part of their internal communications work. Other senior MPs are also regularly happy to be interviewed too. This willingness to engage with bloggers is, from what people in the Labour Party tell me, very different from the attitude of most Labour ministers towards bloggers.
Aside from Richard, the party is blessed with several other members who voluntarily contribute hugely to the party’s online and blogging presence. Ryan Cullen is a major star, with his work in running Liberal Democrat Blogs, a blog aggregator – now with Twitter aggregation too – which conveniently pulls together the latest stories from Liberal Democrat blogs all into one place. Having a diverse range of party members contribute to the party’s blogging profile makes for a more diverse, successful and resilient approach than if it were being driven solely by head office staff. We use the party’s official website and browser toolbar, along with mailings to party members, to help promote these unofficial blogging presences. The party’s website even carries the latest stories from Liberal Democrat blogs. These are all ways of using the official party online presences to help promote the unofficial online community too because it is by working together (though not always agreeing!) that we get the strongest overall impact for our shared aims.
As with Labour and the Conservatives, individual Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians blog (for example, Lynne Featherstone, Steve Webb – who should win some sort of prize for the worst pun in a blog name – and Ros Scott, though I get the sense that whilst the Liberal Democrats very much have their individual personality come through on their blogs, they also use them to promote the party’s messages and campaigns rather more than Parliamentarians from other parties. I think this comes from the stronger focus on local campaigning in order to ensure re-election that you get from Liberal Democrat MPs in particular who know that, however large their majority, stopping work will see their majority melt away in a way that does not always happen for MPs of other parties.
The party also provides tools to bloggers so that if they wish, they can help promote the party’s campaigns through their sites – again mixing the official and unofficial in a complementary way. The blogging buttons and video feed make it easy for people to add automatically updated buttons and YouTube films to their sites. Although there is a feature to ‘veto’ any individual button that a blogger doesn’t want to appear on their own blog, this has been only rarely used. This rarity, and the popularity of the tools across Liberal Democrat blogs, says something about the relative unity and happiness within the party; it is hard to imagine similar tools in the Conservative or Labour parties having similar success, with their bloggers much more likely to be unhappy with policies and campaigns that the party officially is promoting.
Last, though certainly not least, there is Liberal Democrat Voice. Originally set-up by a party member and now run by a collective comprising a mix of party staff and a majority of non-staff members, it has always had a significant amount of content from official party sources. However, this is mixed in with non-official content and even some of the content from MPs have been articles expressing their disquiet over party proposals rather than them simply promoting the ‘official’ line.
My own view has always been very strongly that a purely official ‘home’-type site would simply be too boring and would fail to bring the benefits that a lively, engaged online audience can bring. Whilst at times it may seem more comforting to only have ‘helpful’ content, the reality is that if you want a decent-sized audience, if you want to benefit from the feedback and cross-examination from online audiences, and if you want to have fun, you need to loosen the shackles that a 100% official site comes with.
Given this, I am rather sceptical as to how the new official Conservative blog with fare. I doubt it will be a complete disaster – if nothing else, because it can have exclusive content from David Cameron which will inevitably get attention just because it is from him – but I doubt it will be a triumph either. More likely, it will – like WebCameron – gather an initial burst of publicity and then sink down to a relatively low-level of traffic. Of course, if I’m wrong, expect to see the Liberal Democrat approach rethought rapidly!