With just over 60,000 voters scattered across the UK (and even a few around the globe) and only limited media coverage, the Liberal Democrat leadership contest is almost perfectly suited for digital campaigning.
Postage is very expensive, phone calls are very time consuming and local party events effective but limited in their reach. Even the hustings due to be held in London, which is all set to be the largest in the party’s history by quite some margin, will still reach less than 1 in 5 members in the area.
And so, enter stage left: digital campaigning as Tim Farron and Norman Lamb battle it out to be the next Liberal Democrat leader. A half-term report on their digital progress so far would read “solid start”.
Solid, but not quite all the basics have been got right and there’s not been much imagination so far. Even so, digital is a central part of their campaigns.
Helped by his long run-up of low-key preparations for a leadership contest, Tim Farron’s online campaign has got off to a quicker and more active start and, as with Norman Lamb, all the basics are being covered. Website? Tick. Twitter? Tick. Facebook? Tick. And so on.
Underlying it is a classic, but still under-used, digital strategy. Don’t expect the audience to come to you (and your website), but instead go to where your audience is. Fish where the fish are.
In the leadership race this means going to where Lib Dems are already hanging out on social media and joining the conversations there – a simple tactic yet one which is still much under-used in many public affairs campaigns.
There’s also been a smart using of digital assets to provide a follow-up to such social media conversations, with Tim Farron’s campaign in particular pointing people on to YouTube videos and online speech transcripts to provide more depth to their conversations. Again a simple but under-used tactic.
Likewise too the use of personal endorsements, a tactic where Lamb has the edge over Farron, with his great use of personal video stories from people who have had mental health issues and really rate his work on the subject when a health minister. (Personal endorsements have also been one of the highlights of the Labour leadership and deputy leadership contests where similarly solid rather than original efforts dominate.)
Where the Lib Dem leadership campaigns have been missing a trick however is with really good search-optimisation of their content, especially the titles and tagging on videos, and with data capture.
The two leadership campaigns can have a limited number of emails sent out on their behalf to party members, but they don’t get the full email address book given to them – which places a premium on building up their own email databases. Lamb’s campaign has been slightly better at this – including a link through to a survey in the above-the-fold teaser on the first such email sent out on its behalf – but overall the general impression is how rarely the campaigns are asking for data. Yet data is campaigning’s lifeblood, just as it is (or should be) for marketing, public relations and public affairs.
So where does that leave the overall scorecard? The leadership race shows how digital has become an essential, even mundane, communications tool – but also how there is still plenty of scope for making sure that the details are got right, that data is prioritised and that a dash of imagination is applied now and again.
UPDATE: A little bit of extra analysis