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The Digital Election: Why the parties' online campaigns lacked the charm and persuasion of the door-knocking canvassers

This article is the conclusion of a series from global marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi assessing key aspects of the main political parties’ digital strategies during the general election.

One day at the outset of this general election my five-year-old daughter and I happened across a small, swaddled huddle of Conservatives in front of our local butchers. I know they were Conservatives because one of them had pale blue knuckles clenched around a sign to that effect. Another stood on an upturned crate with two men beating drums on either side of him. Eight or so people comprised the audience as the person on the crate shouted things through a loud haler at them.

My daughter looked at me, confused, and asked: “Why don’t they just go indoors and talk normally?”

It was a bloody good question, not just because it was beginning to drizzle, but also because the seat being shouted about has been Conservative since the ward was formed in 1950, with the current MP in situ since 1997. But preaching to the converted has always played a large role in election campaigning, whether eight at a time on a windy Sunday rally, in newspapers, or in emails urging the party faithful to “keep up the good work”.

Only 1 per cent of people in the UK actually belong to a political party. That’s the same number as believe Elvis is alive as the estimable blogger Steve Van Riel points out. With turnout at 66 per cent, those 1 per cent and a slightly wider team of individual MPs’ personal support team have traditionally been the cornerstone of a party’s “direct marketing”.

You don’t get more direct than a knock on the door from Kenneth down the road with his elbow crooked around a sheath of leaflets. Kenneth is the converted. He has a little poster in his front window to tell us so. So the majority of the campaign is unlikely to be played out in digital channels.

If a brand were to pursue a marketing strategy that comprised people putting up little posters and knocking on doors, Shoreditch digital marketing folk would snort in derision. But before we write Kenneth and his leaflets off, we should weigh up the benefits of his work against the shiny new digitally-fuelled work this election brought us.

Technology has given some intelligence to Kenneth’s canvassing. If he is a Labour, SNP or Lib Dem doorstepper he would have been armed with findings from data platform NationBuilder, knowing who’s on the same side as him (or at least, who says they are) as well as why and how long that has been the case.

This is why any attempt to read a party’s manifesto on their sites is interrupted by demands for your social log in and email.

Barack Obama’s campaign has offered the political class the example of technology used to create an unstoppable, unprecedented digital engine that connected digital natives and dreamers with data driven intelligence and an armoury of slogans, films and ideas than galvanised a real movement toward the ballot box. Obama had door knockers like Kenneth too, but they were provided with a data and a backdrop of fresh content people could share online.

Unfortunately the Obama campaign’s heart and soul wasn’t replicated in the UK’s 2015 election campaigns, just the digital strategy.

So for those parties that invested in the processes – yes, data was used to follow up leads with paid digital media creative, or daily email comms, with or without rather gratuitous use of people’s names (Real life example: “So, Stuart from Lewisham West and Penge: how about it?”)

And if the “target” had expressed any interest in the Conservatives they may have had their working day interrupted by a slightly alarming “Dear Chum” email from Rt Hon Eric Pickles. If it was Labour that they momentarily introduced themselves to, they may have received an email headed “!!!”, assuming it got through the spam filter, or Justine Miliband’s rather jolly election day emoji message. If they had given the Lib Dems their email they might have had, one day, an invitation to dinner with Hugh Grant and the next, a harrowing story of the evil Labour plot to “get rid of” MP Simon Hughes. I ploughed through hundreds of emails as part of this project, but the correspondence offered by those in the UK were by turns assumptive, odd and unrewarding.

Another notable use of digital in recent years has been the use of social content to drive the offline movement into new audiences, with new messages: from Obama’s use of YouTube and Twitter, to Jon Gnarr’s insanely successful mayoral campaign in Iceland and Hollande’s appropriation of Jay Z’s “Niggas in Paris”. Although the TV debates still drew millions of viewers, the election broadcasts were absent, outdoor spend was slashed, and creative became “agile”.

There was little charm in the digital campaign creative that the parties put out, which seemed largely to be the product of a Cassetteboy fan in central office, forgetting that it is one thing for satirists to send politicans up in little, beautifully crafted cartoons and films, and another for the political class to send each other rude notes. Although the Greens’ excellent spoof Change the Tune shone out as being better executed than most, it ultimately said less about why you should vote for a Green candidate other than the other guys all looked the same.

There were rays of sunshine: notably “ginger ninja” Naomi Long for the Alliance Party’s Twitter feed showed warmth and humanity and even her post-loss update was memorable and charming. Nicola Sturgeon’s live tweeting was refreshingly human. Ed Miliband in Russell Brand’s kitchen might have been a bit odd but it was memorable, human and headline grabbing.

However we must ask ourselves whether transferring such a complex election onto social media wholesale was part of the reason that the traditional parties struggled to make themselves heard ideologically. If everyone is scrapping, moment to moment, in your feed, it is no wonder the high ground seems to have been left open.

So, ultimately some might argue that Kenneth was more likely to provide his neighbours with persuasive content than some of the UK parties have managed in this election. Kenneth can do what only humans who care about something can do, and speak to you like a human might take time to explain a policy relevant to you. He’ll probably avoid the word ‘chum” and the use of a megaphone.

In short, my digital strategy recommendation to the main parties is the same as it would be to any brand. To leave the tactical messages around election time to people who are prepared to knock on a door for a cause, and to focus on providing the people of the UK with a higher purpose for your organisation, and a brand that might withstand satire in the next four years rather than one that can take a punch and dish it out with the rest of them.

I would ditch the Tumblr cynicism in favour of something that expresses a purpose and a cause to drive real choice come the next election and use that to fuel a consistent presence on and offline. I’d offer Kenneth and the other footsoldiers a clearly articulated and differentiated cause to care about and fuel a real movement in your favour behind them.

Because whoever did well, whoever didn’t, this wasn’t a very edifying election spectacle in terms of digital communications, especially as those in social tended to expose and amplify the snarling and personal rather than celebrate choices and ideas.

Fern Miller is chief strategy & insight officer, international at DigitasLBi

The findings of DigitasLBi’s study into the main political parties’ digital strategies, and a social data study revealing surprising facts about the parties and their supporters, can be downloaded at www.wearewhatsnext.com

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