PR and comms chiefs must have been inundated over the last year with requests to events stuffed with experts examining the intricate details of just how a junior Senator from Illinois made use of the web to change the face of American elections (and by extension, politics) forever.
How can these techniques be applied to campaigns in Britain? The major political parties have imported many of the tools and strategies – often with the direct help of the very same people who worked on the US campaigns – and the insiders within the public affairs industry have begun to recognise the benefits of harnessing the power of the web.
Google’s Eric Schmidt quipped recently that “the first rule of the internet is that you can speak to each individual as though they’re a different person.” The benefits of this age of mass-personalisation remain as yet untapped.
Parties have focused a lot of their efforts on building and nurturing “brand-champions” – the bloggers and tweeters with the largest social footprints – in the hope of eventually controlling the media cycle. I’d be the first to say this strategy can make a difference to any particular campaign, but I suggest that we’ve lost sight of the original goal – to augment and encourage participation from ordinary citizens.
We also haven’t seen the kind of posturing to distinct and specific communities of voters that is the cornerstone of American electioneering. For instance, Hillary Clinton’s campaign played the blue collar card at the same time she was appealing to Manhattan socialites. She targeted specific people in one group via email blasts, and the entirety of the other group via targeted ads – simultaneously.
Ron Paul’s fundraising success relied on anarcho-libertarians in the deep South just as much as it did on wealthy government-loving Asian-Americans on the West Coast with a fondness for tax-cuts. In essence, micro-targeting worked, but only because the value of the output from the targeting efforts, or in other words the personalised information and content, was made valuable by relating it to other personalised content, and it went beyond just personalising an email with the recipient’s name at the top.
Communities form around interests
The campaigns made compelling arguments for communities to form around their interests. Without a doubt, this required ‘boots on the ground,’ and significant amounts of money were invested into hiring field staff who could easily relay the feedback from citizens like Joe the Plumber back to the senior campaign staffers, most of whom could work with the creative teams to turn around – within hours – a targeted TV and web video commercial that focused on a specific region.
The emphasis on data wasn’t only focused on outreach efforts, but was also made to ensure the general strategy for the campaign wasn’t driven by speculation. It’s just as easy to tell if a policy idea isn’t doing well in a particular area of the country when you’re aggregating feedback from online and offline channels, as it is to tell if a policy idea is indeed being positively received – though you’d want to milk it for all its worth by adding on layers of fundraising and get-out-the-vote appeals.
Without going into the Design for Six Sigma methodology – which I recognise as heaven for those of us who enjoy process stories – there was a significant amount of effort placed into making campaigns leaner and more efficient, even designed from the ground-up to bring all staff to the table.
Barack Obama’s campaign itself was arguably the best designed – for example, the new media team wasn’t lumped with the technology team, and neither was it directly at the heart of the campaign.
Instead, staffers from disparate departments were simply and beautifully interlaced, and the process helped reinforce the general campaign structure’s output.
In the weeks and months ahead, leading up to (and even after) the general election, we’ll hear a lot about how the online comms industry is moving toward a value-added approach, where marketers add value to existing conversations, instead of simply broadcasting their own messages. The political parties are doing some things right, though, and we’ve seen in the last few months a great deal of importance placed on reaching out to those living outside the Westminster bubble, most of whom already have other things they want to do (from watching porn to reading the latest on the Katie Price saga – or maybe that’s the same thing).
Labour’s use of targeted emails is already driving open-rates near to the 80% mark, and the Tories have successfully launched keyword-targeted ad campaigns on Google and even run media-buys of display ad campaigns across niche communities within the blogosphere. The American campaigns have been doing this over several electoral cycles, and have learned how to tie it all together as one big package.
The challenge remains: we have to be able to communicate with and directly organise people around messages they are most receptive to, and it’s our job to augment these conversations and scale it all up, in order to pull all these voters in. Interactivity is the key, when voters expect to have a real voice, and demand to have a real say.