Labour’s View: Social Media and the New World of U.K. Political Campaigns

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns dedicated to looking at the digital strategies and tactics being employed in the U.K elections from three perspectives: Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats. This series will explore how each of the parties are using search and display advertising, social media, and other digital tools, techniques, and platforms — as well as how they measure the results of their efforts.

So, over here in the U.K., we’re in the thick of our election campaign. Our set-up is different to the U.S., with a much shorter campaign headed by people who have been around for a while and who head established party campaign structures where the workforce and the funding sources have been a constant and don’t have to be created from scratch to support a “run for office.”

However, many things are universal.

Audiences generally are becoming less deferent. People don’t trust traditional authority figures to the same extent, they expect to talk back and be involved in a two-way conversation, not be talked down to. They also have extremely diverse interests, which they expect to be addressed. This is true of party members and activists just as much as the ordinary voter.

Technology has enabled people to organise for themselves, find people who share their interests, talk back, and find new authority figures. A successful campaign by any political party needs to recognise this. Labour started all the heavy-lifting on this back in the summer of 2008, which was when some key figures spent time in the U.S. with the Obama campaign getting to grips with what actually worked.

As I mentioned, there is so much that is different about U.S. politics generally and the fact that we are an incumbent governing party and Obama was a special candidate. But in terms of the campaign nuts and bolts, we came away from there with some very important learnings, which augmented our existing thinking but gave renewed confidence and momentum to some of things that were needed.

A key thing to understand is that not all the clever people work in HQ, the party needs to act as a part of a network.

This involves creating an infrastructure to engage in a two-way information flow. Whether that’s set-piece initiatives such as regular blogger briefings with the politicians or party staffers, campaigners Web chats for key doorstep activists, or introducing a new media campaign spokesperson (a.k.a., Twitter Tsar) to constantly respond on social networks.

We’ve seen the virtual phonebank imported from the Obama campaign, which means people can make calls when and where they choose, rather than pitching up at a local office at a nominated time and a high-spec system which ensures that a human contacts you within minutes of signing up to join the party and asks how the party can be useful to you.

This is great, but in a campaign where stakes are high and resources are stretched right to the limit, everything needs to have an ROI. All these things produce a more motivated activist base — 100,000 face-to-face contacts per week, double what we had in 2005; 40,000 calls via the virtual phonebank, and 30,000 members using our social network site, Membersnet, to organise and swap ideas.

We’re operating in a new world with some of this stuff — it’s both scary and exciting, but, so far, it’s working. We’ll learn so much as we go and I’ll try and share as much of that as I can over the next few weeks!

Tomorrow on Search Engine Watch, Mark Pack of the Liberal Democrats will look at the use of humor in campaigns, as well as important lessons learned from Twitter.

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