22/04/2010

By Rory Murray

We witnessed the impact of Social Media in US politics, where Obama effectively won the election by rallying and co-ordinating grass-roots support through Social Media tools. We are now about to encounter the first UK General Election in which Social Media will be a component, so what part will it play and how will it make a difference?

An election has traditionally been fought through the “old media” and on the door-step. This has always heavily favoured the big-3 parties because they have a large infrastructure of supporters in place and are well-practised at running campaigns.

I recently saw an article by the Electoral Reform Society which said that 382 MPs, representing 25m people have such safe seats that, in effect, the election is irrelevant in those constituencies — that’s from a total of 650 seats. Balancing that, there are more MPs standing down at this election than ever before — some for legitimate reasons, others because of the expenses scandal and other sleaze.

In this context, there’s all to play for in the other 268 seats and possibly in some of the seats where the electorate wants to “punish” the incumbent party after their MP has been disgraced and stepped down.

So what part can Social Media actually play? Well, in theory, it gives everyone a voice — anyone with a PC can start a blog, use Twitter, join or start a Facebook Group, share news, gain followers, rally support and take part. It has the potential to put democracy back in the hands of ordinary people and empower thMums nete electorate to stand up and be counted. The caveat to this is motivation, at a time when apathy seems to be the over-riding emotion.

Social Media, by definition, can level the playing field between the ordinary person in the street and the large organisation and for this reason, most large organisations view this with extreme suspicion, fear it and want to control it, which is impossible and the more they try to control it, the less control they will have. It’s interesting that all the major parties are clamouring to get on Mum’s Net for staged and controlled discussions, just as much as they seek exposure on TV and radio.

What doesn’t seem to be happening in the way I would have expected, is concerted Social Media campaigns. The Big 3 all have their supporters Twittering away, but this loses consistency of message at times and, to a large degree, the Twitter audiences “followers” are there because they are already politically savvy, so it’s a bit like preaching to the choir — it’s also a great source of research for competitive parties to get an early warning of what’s going on, which is making the campaigns much more agile than before.

The key to a successful Social Media campaign is reaching ordinary people and motivating them to listen to what you have to say and then to take part and become an advocate of your organisation when they are speaking to other potentially interested individuals. The challenge is to convert people from passively interested into actively being involved and promoting your proposition to others. This has to be done where they are already socialising, often around a common interest or social networking platform. This has never been possible using traditional techniques, except by physically going to the working men’s clubs, bingo halls, hospitals, factories, etc., and is almost entirely pointless in the “seat for life” constituencies mentioned above.

The attributes of a successful Social Media campaign includes the following aspects:

• Open/Transparent

• Authentic

• Community-based

• Dialogue and user input

• Word of Mouth/Viral

As we all know, most of these words aren’t ones we’d naturally associate with politics. But this is where Obama was very successful — he made his campaign about “us”, “together”, “we” and he made ordinary people feel like they were part of the change he was promising — he gave them a voice and he listened. Showing interest in what others want/need/expect is a key skill in engaging an audience and converting them — the steps of the journey are:

1. Positive interaction — Listening and paying attention

2. Consistency

3. Credibility

4. Authenticity

5. Trust

6. Loyalty

7. Advocacy

Again, this is not what the big 3 parties are offering in this election, at least, not so far!

On the other hand, this is where the smaller parties and individual independents can win if they can recruit enough people to make their campaign go viral and reach the “tipping point”. The tipping point is both an individual/personal and a mass event. On the personal level, it is the point at which you are convinced and willing to follow this person/organisation. On the mass level, it is when enough people reach the personal tipping point that the whole campaign takes on a life of its own and people are advocating you/your organisation without the need for you to continually motivate them to do so.

Richard Taylor achieved a huge swing in Kidderminster in 2001 against the incumbent Labour candidate over local outrage at the possible closure of the local hospital and was re-elected in 2005. [nurl=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Bell]Martin Bell, a BBC war correspondent, achieved a similar result standing against Neil Hamilton in 1997, after a scandal in one of Britain’s safest Tory seats, overturning a 22,000 majority to win by over 11,000 votes — and this was before the term “Social Media”, or the on-line tools we know today, even existed!

Until now, the insurmountable challenge for the smaller parties has been to get their voice heard above the noise the Big 3 create in the traditional media, where they dominate everything. Social Media offers the opportunity for smaller parties to achieve this.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Social Media can change the way political campaigning is done and can reach a vast number of people quickly, efficiently and relatively cheaply. In exactly the same way, handled appropriately it is also a fantastic tool for business.

Will it make a difference in the UK?

Not if the parties simply transplant traditional approaches to the on-line media. The big parties have always believed in a top-down “command and control” structure and this is the antithesis of everything Social Media is about — it can’t work, in politics or in business!

This is where the smaller parties or firms can win because they don’t have large “control-freak” infrastructures and can simply get out there and spread the word. Whether they have the expertise and people to create the “tipping point” at which the campaign takes on a life of its own is another matter…… we shall see!

Rory Murray is an expert in using Social Media to engage target audiences in active dialogue to enhance revenues and profitability as well as improving customer loyalty and advocacy.

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