We’re now down to those exhilarating last four months of the election campaign and we’ve been given a clear glimpse of the strategies of the different parties. There’s been so much change since the last election that uncertainty is everywhere.
In the period since 2010, technology has brought about more change than between any two previous elections. For example – the way we get our news has changed in five years. The latest independent evidence says that for the UK population after TV, the Internet has edged ahead of newspapers as our main source of news. Indeed for 16 to 34-year-olds slightly more of them are getting their news from the web than even from television (60% vs 59%). Sometimes this is from the newsbrands that we’ve read our whole lives – and sometimes this is through social media or new sites. Social media takes a big slice of our daily media diet: our best known bands have been broken by it, political movements have sprung up on it, we use it to react to things that horrify us. As we go into this General Election on average we Brits spend over an hour a day with all forms web content – and no one really knows the impact it will have on voting.
The most striking aspect of the first fortnight’s pointers from politicians was the glimpse at Labour’s strategy. In an era when 83% of the population use the internet, when reaching for our smart phone is – for many of us – our instinctive first action on awakening, against this backdrop Ed’s strategy for getting the message out there was…. “having four million conversations“. It’s not fully clear at first glance where these conversations are going to take place. Are people going to come… to my actual front door? Maybe politicos haven’t evolved in the same way as the rest of us, but in 2015 the only thing more offensive than a political candidate coming to my door would be them leaving me a voicemail. In the current climate I’d have thought this was the only strategy likely to make politicians less popular. What’s the next surprise, Nick Clegg creating a series of automated phone calls asking if I’d had a recent insurance claim?
In truth maybe we’ve not seen the best of the parties’ digital efforts yet. But if Ed – and the other party leaders – need some pointers of how to operate in this evolved world, here are four suggestions of what he can learn from social media experts like Harry Styles and the One Direction boys.
(My personal take on this is wholly impartial. A companion piece ‘What David Cameron can learn from Zayn Malik’ could probably get some traction – most political grandees will probably think Zayn Malik is a visiting professor at the LSE).
Getting the tone right sells records
The most critical thing on social media is that it is very easy to detect subtle signals of authenticity. If someone doesn’t run their own social accounts, it starts to become pretty obvious. The 1D boys sit confidently astride their own Twitter handles – typos and all. They are passionate in their tone of voice – often joking with each other. Let’s be realistic too – they know that the more of this stuff they do, the more records they sell. It used to be said that listeners considered radio presenters to be their friends, with good social media band members can feel like BFFs. There’s an opportunity for someone like Ed to start using social media a bit more like politicians like Stella Creasy, William Hague or Boris Johnson.
Build causes – mobilise emotions
On social channels we tend to retweet and spread things that move us. If something connects emotionally we want to pass it on. One Direction use emotion brilliantly – teaser videos, countdowns to big announcements, photos from backstage, shout outs to fans in particular cities. Politicians can learn from this – broad pronouncements on policies are less likely to be shared than emotive messages about key policy areas. #50DaysToSaveTheNHS is far more likely to have impact than something nebulous like #SupportingWorkingFamilies. And seriously these things can have a material impact, the UK’s most effective charitable campaign of 2014 was the #NoMakeUpSelfie movement which raised £8million in two weeks with zero advertising spend.
Understand the tools of the trade
At the end of 2014 there was a strongly visible Twitter movement behind the hashtag #CameronMustGo. It trended for a long while as the volume of conversation kept rising – in the end there were over 1.3million Tweets. However trending topics on Twitter are based on rapidly emerging news items – not sustained volume of chatter – the Cameron trend pretty soon dipped off the top list. The response of campaigners was to reach for the conspiracy theories. “Someone must have had a word…It’s been taken down… I suspect Michael Gove!” In fact the truth is more mundane, the algorithm for ‘trending topics’ was designed to avoid a far greater peril – Beliebers. As every Justin Bieber or 1D fan knows, if you want to keep trending you need to change your hashtag pretty regularly. It’s why ‘#5DaysTil1DTour’ style campaigns are so well understood by social media loving kids. If parties are going to win at social media they need to channel their inner boyband fan. Work out how they will evolve their mantle – and use social media like they truly understand it.
Think about small actions that can have a big impact
In the world of One Direction, getting fans to pre-order songs is a critical way to ensure a ripe chart position. The one benefit of a long election campaign is that parties can concentrate energies right now on getting under 40s to register for a postal vote. There have been brilliant contributions by the likes of Rick Edwards about how to get the electoral participation rate up.
In the short-term the best way to do this is to let young people vote from home. Making a Thursday morning trip to a polling station half a mile away isn’t brilliantly adapted to the 21st century. Parties should focus their energies in the next month on getting postal votes into the hands of the under 40s. Social media – and the web in general – can do this brilliantly. Maybe build a movement around people pledging their mailed vote – ‘I’ve gone postal about Britain’s schools’. (You’re welcome). On the subject of this, @BitetheBallot are running a national voter registration day on 5 February.
Whether it’s campaigning to end Page 3, sharing sympathy for a fallen sportsman, or lending support to an equality movement, social media is becoming a place where momentum behind causes builds – and then impacts our lives.
Maybe four million handshakes can win an election, but politicians shouldn’t ignore the way the world around us is totally different to what it looked like five or 10 years ago. The iPhone is only eight years old. Of whatever brand, there is a device in our hands right now that is changing the way we consume media and the way we form our opinions. It would be a mistake to pass that opportunity by. Please politicians, channel One Direction – let’s make this the Best Election Ever.