UK elections: Social media and web analytics get the vote; politicians come poor second


Danny Meadows-Klueby Danny Meadows-Klue

The use of the web by UK politicians has been underwhelming. Instead of an Obama-style social media groundswell bringing policy debate into living rooms and bars, the British electorate has had to suffer waves of negative campaigning, an explosion of pointless blogging by anyone running for office, and a focus on Facebook fans or Twitter followers that mistakes raw numbers for engagement. And yet Election 2010 has been the most digital the UK’s ever seen; here’s why...

Social media reached out to a new generation and told them to vote. The Electoral Commission - not known for its innovation - pulled off a political coup of its own by teaming up with Facebook to bring new voters into the system. Along the way they beefed up the brand image of elections, and showed youngsters why votes count. To do it they used the tried-and-trusted digital marketing approach: reach the right people (under 25s not yet registered to vote), in the right media space (Facebook), with the right offer (one click to register). Simple, brilliant, game-changing.

In contrast to the surprisingly shrewd strategy of the Electoral Commission, the digital behaviour of most people standing for office has been arrogant, naive and tedious. After a deafly silence, suddenly every MP is tweeting, blogging and aggressively recruiting fans on Facebook. If half as much energy went into policies and management as it did telling us all about it, there’s no doubt the UK would have a much better political machine and much better government.

Politicians have succeeded in taking one-size-fits-all broadcast messages and unleashed them in an uninhibited torrent of propaganda across every social media platform. They’ve created a new type of political spam that floods through any digital door they can open. Presumably this aimed to copy the intensity of the Obama email campaign that fuelled the Democrat’s social media campaigns, yet they missed two key points. First, it’s the quality of the message that counts - and whatever your political beliefs, UK parties could hardly be described as game-changers - and secondly political marketers have managed to almost completely disregard the principles of dialogue and engagement. That’s probably explains why their social media pages get relatively low traction (tens of thousands of followers rather than millions), and why much of this frenzy of messaging is cycling through an existing and loyal fan base.

The real digital hero of the election is web analytics. For the first time the political and media machines have started to explore the real potential of digital monitoring and polling. Until this year, telephone polling, street surveys and focus groups were the way campaign machines viewed the landscape and measured what worked and what didn’t. Fortunately that era is dying, and in its place has come deep digital analysis based on click-paths, language sentiment, citations and effortless online voting.

Ironically politicians are still years behind consumer brands in getting the most from web analytics, but - led by journalists looking for new ways to explain political stories - the gap is closing fast and digital analytics have come into their own. Social media monitoring is providing granular insights into every sound-bite and every gesture from the leaders of the three main parties. Online polls from YouGov are forming a faster turnaround and more detailed set of data than phone surveys ever could. Live social media trackers running alongside TV debates are creating a new immediacy and sparking debate as well as showing politicians how to adapt their messages. Analytics has given politicians an unprecedented window into their own electability. Whether we like it or not, elections are about marketing, and politicians - like all good marketers - are quickly applying the lessons they learn from their customers online.

Effective digital strategies work across the whole marketing mix and throughout the marketing journey - from researching customer insights, to changing a customer’s brand preference, through building buzz and engagement, into the sale, and long after into customer care. In their hunger for office, politicians have unlocked the customer insight engine of analytics, they are making a fierce play for changing people’s brand preference. Whether they follow through to deliver on election promises and offer customer care - relationships through digital channels - after May 6th is highly unlikely. The digital strategies in UK politics are as lopsided, as the campaigning is negative. On the web, actions speak louder than words. And that’s something that many in office on May 7th will find much harder to deal with than any opinion poll, digital or not.

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