Eight lessons from the general election campaign for activities outside politics

This article is appearing in The Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2010-2011, which is available from Amazon.

Just as people running political campaigns often learn from other disciplines, those active in other disciplines can learn from political campaigns. Much has been written (including by myself, such as in the Hansard Society report) on how social media was used in the 2010 general election campaign; far less common have been pieces looking at the lessons that those outside politics can learn from the deployment of social media in that election.

Lessons are often clearer to see and easier to understand from other people and other professions, so here are eight lessons that people in the public affairs and related fields can learn from the political use of social media.

Lesson one: successful use of social media is more about organisation and culture than it is about technology

Good technology certainly gave some candidates and parties advantages over others with mediocre or poor technology, but the most important determinant of the technology’s impact was how well it was used, not the quality of the computer programming.

When it comes to Facebook, for example, anyone can create an account and populate a group, profile or page making use of the same core Facebook functionality that everyone else has. The differences between those who made good or poor use of Facebook were only at the margins about who wrote clever extra customised applications.

Instead, they were substantively about who had the right attitude, embracing the culture of social media and integrating it with wider activities rather than leaving it to a geek in an isolated corner. Labour’s effective use of Twitter to motivate activists had some technical backing, such as the integration of tweets with Labour’s main website at times, yet what made it a success was the strategy of building up key relations, identifying key influencers and supplying relevant information.

There are now so many well established services packed full of features, and frequently free to use, that it is not the programming that makes or breaks social media’s use most of the time. It is the how, where and why of its use that really matters.

Lesson two: social media has many different uses – so you need to select your audience

For all the superficial similarity in how the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats approached social media, with all the parties using similar tools, underlying their work were three different choices about target audiences.

Broadly speaking, the Conservatives placed the most emphasis on reaching floating voters through national measures, Labour on motivating activists though internal communications and the Liberal Democrats on reaching local audiences in a limited number of key seats.

If you delve deeper into the different audiences parties set out to reach, they fall into eight categories – floating voters, potential helpers, existing members and the media at national level, and then all four again at local level (the ‘Nottingham grid’ which you can see on my site illustrates this).

Although the tools that end up being used to reach different combinations of these eight audiences often looked very similar (blogs can be used in different ways to reach all eight, for example), they required very different uses of the tools.

So despite that surface similarity, social media requires just as much though over audiences and segmentation as do more traditional methods of communication.

Lesson three: social media requires integration across different disciplines

Potential uses of social media often cut across traditional divisions between marketing, public relations and customer services (on which, see my post on the lessons from the first press release ever issued). In politics, this is often handled thanks to the popularity of the open-plan political war room, bringing together different disciplines all in one place. Made famous by the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign for US President, it is now commonplace amongst political campaigns. For small companies a similar setup usually exists, whether deliberately or inadvertently, because when there are insufficient staff to require more than one room, you have to work quite hard to break everyone up in to silos. As firms get bigger – and the trio of marketing, public relations and customer services may be split between different buildings, cities and even countries – the integration challenge offered by social media grows.

It needs to be addressed, however, as Eurostar discovered over Christmas 2009 when their trains ran into serious problems in the cold weather. When the crisis hit many of their customers and their friends and relatives turned to Twitter to find out what was going on and to ask questions. What they found was a firm that was using Twitter for marketing and nothing else – and it is rather grating to find only messages urging you to buy train tickets when you want to know when your loved one’s train is going to get out of the tunnel it has been stuck in for hours.

The internal distinction that Eurostar’s marketing team had been the one using Twitter, not the customer services, did not cut much ice with the public. Eurostar was then left playing catch-up (which it did succeed in doing to its credit) because those marketing, public relations and customer services distinctions that made sense internally did not make sense to the public in the world of Twitter where all three are intermingled. (For more on this, see www.markpack.org.uk/eurostar/.)

Lesson four: audiences usually take time to establish

The helter-skelter of the twenty-four hour news cycle during an intense general election campaign can give a misleading impression that social media is about fast moving stories, with online events coming and going quickly as information spreads virally at high speed.

That is sometimes the case, as with the MyDavidCameron.com site which was launched to let people produce parodies of the early 2010 Conservative election campaign posters. It was created shortly after the “We’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS” posters first appeared and got such a quick and large traffic spike, with poster pastiches and reports of them spreading widely online and in the traditional media so promptly that the media reports of the Conservative poster campaign were quickly as much about the satire as about the original posters.

However, this was very much the exception. Other social media successes were overwhelmingly based on audiences that had already started to build well in advance of the election. Whether it was the tweets of John Prescott, the online films from David Cameron or the blog posts from Lynne Featherstone, none started from scratch when Gordon Brown dissolved Parliament. All had spent considerable time building up audiences in advance. They all also benefitted from significant boosts during the campaign, but only because the pre-election work had got them into a position to profit from this opportunity.

Leaving it until the moment when you most want the audience to start trying to get the audience is, nine times out of ten, leaving it too late.

Lesson five: social media makes journalists clubbable to a much wider circle of people

Sharing a previous education establishment, a pub or a private club with journalists has often given people an important advantage when it comes to media relations. The personal connection gives you a foot in the door, a higher chance of a response and a better understanding of how to shape your approach.

Those benefits are still very much in existence, but social media – and in particular Twitter – gives far more people the chance to emulate those benefits through another, more open, route. Behave sensible, interact wisely and provide useful information and you can build up similar sorts of personal relations with journalists.

The rate of good Twitter take-up by journalists varies hugely across different sectors of the media, with technology and political journalists out near the front. Even if the sector you deal with is near the back of the field, reading the tweets from journalists can help you build up a picture of what sort of stories and angles interest them, what issues they are currently intrigued by and what styles of approach most resonate with them.

Lesson six: social media means two-way dialogue

When Howard Dean was seeking the Democratic nomination for the 2004 US Presidential elections, his effort pioneered the use of a blog in political campaigns. In the highly-charged atmosphere of US politics his campaign team faced a problem. A blog open to comments meant opponents often contributed, sometimes in with abusive and off-topic contributions. Previous candidates had handled this problem by avoiding it – no blog, no comments, no problem.

Dean’s campaign had the insight to take a very different approach. Rather than blocking all hostile comments, they relied on the presence of numerous supporters reading the blog to respond with their own comments. They also encouraged a culture whereby if a hostile comment appeared, supporters would respond with their own comments saying how seeing the negative comment had motivated them to donate to the Dean campaign. This became an effective self-regulating – and profitable! – mechanism. A blog without comments or with only the slow moving discussion that flows from everything being pre-moderated would have been a less successful blog for Dean.

Though it is a particular approach that only suits particular circumstances, there is a widely applicable underlying principle: successful use of social media requires you to embrace its responsive nature and to find ways of living with that, rather than trying to avoid it.

There were some missteps in the general election campaign, as when the Conservative Party’s Cash Gordon campaign website was done in a way which made it very easy for people to post up negative or mocking comments, which then flooded the site and pushed out other content. The Conservatives managed other forms of interactivity more successfully, as with the use of Google Moderator to underpin online policy consultations and debates. The principle of engaging with the public worked well, even if as with any good principle poor execution can at times let it down.

Traditionally marketing and public relations has involved finding as positive a way as possible to make a case and trying to avoid any negative comments where possible. Living with negative comments, and even taking steps such as setting up a blog that gives them a new public forum to appear in, can be a big cultural shift – but it is a necessary one.

Lesson seven: people like to share content but buttons don’t make them do it

It is hard to work your way round the web these days without tripping over buttons urging you to share this, tweet that or send the other to Facebook. Yet frequently the buttons are barely used. That is because, just as with social media overall, sharing is only a little about the technology. Instead, it is far more about the content.

Tweets are all fairly equal when it comes to people’s ability to retweet them. Sometimes a shorter tweet has an advantage over a longer one, because it means there is space for ‘RT @username’ to be added if you are retweeting the traditional way, but that is pretty much it. Why then, for example, did some of my tweets during the election campaign get large number of retweets and others not disturb the scorer at all?

The answer lies in why people might want to share content with others. It has to be information that they think their friends/followers will find interesting (and also information which they think will make those people think better of them for having passed on). So my tweet enumerating the number of rounds of applause each of the Chancellor candidates received in the Channel 4 TV debate got passed on because it was providing some timely, relevant and unique information. Others were not providing a similar scorecard and, in the absence of immediate polls after the debate, an applause tally provided a simple and interesting metric about how the public, in the form of the audience, thought Vince Cable, Alistair Darling and George Osborne had performed.

Thinking about the information you have (or might be able to collate) that people may want to share is often a very different communications question from the ones that have been traditionally faced. That is what needs cracking if you want your message carried further by having people share it. This isn’t just a matter of asking the IT folks to add a few sharing links to existing content.

Lesson eight: don’t mock politicians, emulate them

The tone of much commentary about politics and social media is one of condescension: ‘ha ha, look how awful those in politics are at using social media compared to wonderful old me…’. Politics is certainly an easy target, but wiser heads notice how often those dishing out the condescension have no experience of running elections themselves which makes their certainty about how people should go about winning elections rather curious. Wiser heads also notice that in many sectors of the economy the use of social media is far thinner on the ground than it is amongst politicians. Good blogging politicians may be less common than they should be, but try finding good blogging CEOs of top British companies and you will quickly see that for all the flaws in how politicians have embraced social media they are often well ahead of other sectors of the economy.

Social media was a core part of how parties across the political spectrum ran their election campaigns for May 2010. What political parties need to do – deliver the right messages to the right audiences – is not unique to politics. There is a hefty clue there as to what others should also be doing.

3 responses to “Eight lessons from the general election campaign for activities outside politics”

  1. These are all great lessons for enterprises and government agencies to understand regarding social media. I particularly like: “don’t mock politicians, emulate them.” Politicians realize the importance of running their campaign and connecting with their constituents via social media. They have the right ideas about the utilization of social media!

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  2. A lot of these points are also made in an article on authenticity in social media in the Journal of Communication Management (http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?issn=1363-254x&volume=14&issue=3&articleid=1875797&show=abstract) .

    It’s based on only one case study but does reflect experience elsewhere:
    Organisational culture and whether it can let go, allocate the time and play for the long term are issues they highlight.
    You still need to think about message and audience.
    Just being there doesn’t make people flock to you or think you’re authentic just like having buttons doesn’t make people use them.

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