Thursday, July 24, 2008

Politics online is more than WebCameron

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

As conditions in the economy tighten, oil prices rise and pressure mounts on the Government, thoughts are turning to the next election. By law it has to take place by June 2010, and whilst convention usually puts an election earlier, the current climate could persuade Gordon Brown to take it up to the wire.

But the marketing of politicians and parties is changing, and recent events as the 2008 Democratic Party nomination battle in the US unfolded have shown how both voters and politicians are using digital media more to drive the political agenda.

The Pew Internet and American Life project funds academic research into how Americans use digital media, and a newly-released study has shown a massive growth in voter usage.

According to the report, 46% of Americans have used the internet, email or text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others.

The internet has impacted on three important areas which have shifted the ground on which the election machine rolls, and in all of them, Barack Obama has been the first mover.

From the start, Obama was at a disadvantage. His campaign had less media access, particularly early on, and it was going to be a challenge to get his story out to people – especially without the editing and editorializing that can so affect a candidate’s message.

Obama’s solution was to go direct. More than any other candidate, he appealed directly to the voter, through blogs and podcasts – reaching out without the interference of the media, and making a point of it – “it is because the internet is a neutral platform that I can put out this podcast without having to go through any corporate media middleman” he wrote.

If Howard Dean had pioneered the political blog in 2004, Obama took campaigning 2.0, using facebook, flickr and YouTube. And Americans responded. 35% watched online political videos in 2008 – almost three times the number in 2004.

But it wasn’t just what Obama used, it was how he used it. Sign up to Hilary Clinton’s Twitter, and you’d start to receive her tweets. Sign up to Obama’s, and within minutes he signed up to yours. Now nobody thinks he’s reading these thousands of (being twitter, mostly mundane) thoughts, but it’s good netiquette – and to users of twitter that just meant he got it.

Just as Clinton’s was a conventional ‘top down’ campaign, Obama’s was a grassroots movement. There are over 500 Obama groups on Facebook, one of the biggest being ‘One Million Strong for Barack’, started the day he announced his candidacy. Within an hour, it had 100 members, a week 10,000 and within a month 278,000 members.

This grassroots dimension was reflected in the two candidates’ approach to fundraising too. Whilst Clinton pitched Hollywood and New York for the deep-pocketed donors that were the traditional sustenance of politicians, Obama’s campaign worked the other end of the scale.

Without Obama hosting a single fundraiser, his campaign raised $55m in February alone – 80% of it online. But the real difference was the size of the donations – over 90% being less than $200. Far from soliciting big donations from a few individuals, Obama’s campaign recognized the ability the web gave them to aggregate millions of small donors, together outrunning anything Clinton could achieve with her big-hitter donors.

In the past, politicians here have made lipservice to the web. Webcameron, untended facebook profiles, uninvolving websites. It may be that politicians still believe the internet is a young people’s medium – and since fewer young people vote (60% of 16-24s against 86% of over 65s last time) it’s not so important.

But the age demographic of the internet has flattened, and the web itself has become a force for voters to involve themselves – in the same way they’ve made themselves heard as consumers.

Obama’s ability to capitalize on the new medium was a decisive factor in his victory. In the next year or so, it could provide just such a surprise here.