Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Election 2.0?

The lead headline on this week’s Campaign magazine is that Saatchi and Saatchi have been appointed to handle the Labour Party’s ad account ahead of the next election. The image accompanying the story is a huge poster that features the headline ‘Not flash, just Gordon.’

The ban on political advertising on TV and radio explains why UK political advertising has traditionally been around posters, but it is interesting today that the article still focuses on the poster medium rather than the new opportunities presented by the internet. This may of course be a reflection on Campaign magazines priorities rather than an indication of election strategy!

'Not Flash, Just Gordon' Labour poster

There are a large number of ways that the internet can be used to connect with the electorate and innovative, cost effective ways and the party that is able to take best advantage of this will be in a good position. The timing of the last election means that Britain has never had the opportunity to have a Web 2.0 powered general election. It is therefore necessary to look abroad to find examples of how online, and specifically Web 2.0, can be best used to connect with voters.

Conservatives 'It's time for change' banner ad

The Conservative party have been experimenting with advertising in UGC areas and have been successful in generating PR in recent months. Webcameron got some good exposure, advertising on Facebook Groups has created widespread coverage and more column inches have been generated today as a result of running the first Tory ad in gay media – a banner on PinkNews.co.uk.

The internet has not always produced good PR though (see the furore after a group of backbench MP’s produced an unauthorised viral – below!)

Labour and the Liberals have not exploited the internet to the same extent, but all the parties have a long way to go before they are able to realise the full possibilities of the user-driven programs that now exist online. UK parties could learn from recent elections abroad where political organisations and parties have used the internet extensively.

You Tube is being used more and more by political organisations. I mentioned (and linked to) the Downing St website in a post below, but it is also worth viewing some of the content on the European Union You Tube channel. Cleverly called EUTube it features 3 different languages and shows policy / debate footage across a range of topics. A good template for others to replicate!


When it comes to campaigning though few have got as carried away as the Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd. He has embraced online for the forthcoming Australian elections and through his site at Kevin07 he gives links to his blog, You Tube, MySpace and Facebook sites. In the past he has been criticised for under-using the internet, but he seems to be making up for it now!


Rudd may also have taken note of some of the digital ideas seen in the French Presidential election. Nicolas Sarkozy embraced online far more than some of his opponents and made it a critical part of his election strategy – just having an internet strategy helped build the impression that he was the futuristic candidate and the one most capable of reforming France. The Sarkozy team appointed an internet advisor, the blogger Loic Le Meur, and established a number of initiatives in the online area.

One of the most important steps for Sarkozy was to recognise the power of ‘word of mouse.’ Some of his policy proposals would encourage entrepreneurship and proposed reductions in red tape would make it easier for individuals (like Bloggers) to be self-employed or run their own businesses. His manifesto was built on change and was also perceived as being pro-technology. These policies appealed to the French blogosphere and after personal contact, a range of influential bloggers were persuaded to declare support for Sarkozy (even though they may never have voted this way in the past). Influential, opinion-leading bloggers then spread the pro-Sarkozy message across the internet and the ‘word of mouse’ effect was very beneficial to the Sarkozy campaign.


There were some other nice touches in the election campaign for Nicolas Sarkozy – Flickr, YouTube, Netvibes and dailymotion were all used. Sarkozy also attended 3 online conferences in different locations around France, made speeches and then took live questions from the internet. He embraced interview opportunities at all levels – on the one hand he was on national TV, on the other he was working with bloggers and podcasting the results - one of the most significant things was the creation of an L’Ille Sarkozy in Second Life where all his campaign supporters could congregate. This became a virtual campaign headquarters and was very active every day, regularly hitting the SL user capacity. Other parties (like Le Pen’s Front National) set up headquarters and Second Life became a virtual French election battle ground – rivals would argue and debate as well as use Second Life weapons to attack each other!

The whole Sarkozy election campaign was very creative and whilst I feel some people are going too far by claiming that the French election was actually won by the internet, I think it is a mistake to underestimate its potential influence on a campaign.


Second Life has been a popular vehicle for campaigning in a number of places, not just France. Dutch politicians held a real time debate in Second Life last November, a couple of weeks before their general election. Under Japanese law politicians are forbidden to use anything except pamphlets or postcards to campaign. They were therefore banned from using the internet to campaign during their elections. Some tried to bend the rules by using SL to 'chat' rather than 'campaign', but this was soon stopped too and buildings were boarded up for the duration of the election!

Second Life has also been used by US candidates to hold rallies and fund raising dinners. Indeed the USA is the place to look to see the internet being used to the full in campaigning. Illinois senator Barack Obama is the leading 2008 Presidential candidate in terms of web traffic and BarackObama.com had the most unique visitors in July, with 717,000 (Nielsen / Net Ratings.)


Obama announced his exploratory committee via an online video clip. His presidential campaign announcement is now ranked #2 on Brightcove.com’s Top 10 Buzz videos, between a porn clip and cover model’s video and he is currently utilizing the power of Brightcove by creating his own channel.


Obama is billing himself as the ‘technology candidate’ and he has a blog, a Flickr account and a strong Facebook following after making speeches at US universities. He also delivered his policy on net neutrality by podcast saying that “it is because the internet is a neutral platform that I can put out this podcast and transmit it over the Internet without having to go through any corporate media middleman. I can say what I want without censorship or without having to pay a special charge!” (Inspired!) A special Barack social networking site, http://my.barackobama.com, has also been developed.

It is yet to be seen whether Barack Obama can follow Nicolas Sarkozy, riding into office off the back of the internet, but he has made a good start and his web traffic is almost twice as high as his nearest competitor. UK politicians could learn a lot from the methods he, and others, are employing.

It is also worth noting that technology and the internet can also trip up politicians. Candidates have realised that their campaigns can hit troubled water through the actions of one person. George Allen’s horrible ‘Macaca’ moment on You Tube last year (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI) or Hillary Clinton as Big Brother in a (pro-Obama) mash-up of the 1984 Apple commercial becoming a You Tube hit in March.

So what should David Cameron, Gordon Brown and the UK parties be doing?

In the UK David Cameron has been doing some interesting things with WebCameron and You Tube and it feels like the Conservatives are leading the adoption of technology in UK politics. Of the MPs who have their own web presence, the majority are not particularly inspiring and I hope for a dramatic improvement in quality in coming months. I also believe that there are so many digital ways of reaching out and connecting with the electorate that parties need to learn lessons from other countries experiences and consider every option.

All parties should have a multi-faceted digital strategy and I think it would be really engaging (and popular) if the candidates would hold live events online (either in video or Second Life). There are some great opportunities now, I hope they take them!

Like this post?
Then subscribe to regular updates from this blog -
click here to use a Reader or click here to get email updates


David Wilding said...

I can see your argument but would like to point a few things out. Firstly while web 2.0 is incredibly important and, as you rightly point out, this will be the first proper 2.0 election the reality is that it won't win or lose the election - certain urban intelligent audiences will be very into it but the mass of the population less so. Secondly I think it's not a case of doing more web and less posters - an election campaign is every 5 years for 6 weeks and has a massive prize resting on it. You do everything. Both traditional media and web 2.0. Finally for me a real challenge is how does a Prime Minister like Brown actually use web 2.0. Second life, webcameron and some of the examples listed above are actually quite "lightweight" and inconsequential in some respects and not really approproiate for Brown who has built his reputation on and will probably fight the election on substance & delivery. Let Cameron do his spin, presentation and slick imagery and Brown can get on with running the country. But how do you best convey that via 2.0?

Nick Burcher said...

Election advertising should mark the start of a relationship with the electorate, not the end. Limits to campaign expenditure mean that images and advertising have to cause ripples and stimulate debate.

In the absence of TV and radio, posters have been used consistently well by both main parties - Britain isn't working, New Labour New Danger, William Hague morphed into Margaret Thatcher. In the web 2.0 world a poster can still work, but a YouTube clip done well can spread virally and engage thousands of people - without draining campaign budgets. Normal people can become overnight celebrities and random clips can gain worldwide attention - Dancing Fillipino prisoners featured in Metro, a worldwide increase in sales of Mentos after a YouTube clip showed the effects of mixing them with diet Coke etc etc.

Running a range of new initiatives may not be an end in itself, but associating your personal brand with new technology helps to instill a campaign with a feeling of forward thinking freshness and modernity - consider the surprising success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign to date?

Also with the British system of first past the post, a handful of votes in a handful of areas could make all the difference. In France the general perception is that internet activity made the difference in an otherwise very close Presidential election. Online activity may not necessarily produce a national swing of x% but it could be used to make a significant difference on a local level / around certain issues.

What I am trying to say is that the internet is a whole new area for UK general elections. Voter turnout has been consistently declining so something new may re-invigorate the electorate. Also online advertising allows a campaign to highly targeted and built up quietly. It does not require the expenditure of a poster campaign either or have the same green isssues.

There are a lot of (cost-effective) things that parties can do with email, SMS, online display, viral, virtual worlds and social networking. Online activity may not be the mass coverage driver at the heart of a campaign, but I think it can be a very good supplement and online activity will be very effective at generating a lot of comment elsewhere in the news (look at how much David Cameron using a few banners on Facebook has already generated.)

Basically 'ignore the internet at your peril.'

David Wilding said...

Yes, agreed. This will be the first 2.0 election and you ignore the web at your peril. But to repeat my point - you do everything.