In the last federal election, social media showed its potential to engage and influence the voting public. We saw some tentative steps into the world of social media – some tweets, Facebook updates and the occasional blog post. And the public – largely ignored in terms of digital citizenry – leapt at the opportunity to not just join the conversation – but enter the debate.
Over time the the #auspol hashtag has become a hot bed of debate, opinion and – in the best tradition of Twitter – trolling. Over the last month alone, the #auspol hashtag has averaged around 20,000 tweets per day from an Australian Twitter population of only 2.1 million. This would indicate a level of intensity worthy of attention – especially given that the next Australian government is likely to be determined not by a popular or even representative vote – but by voters in a handful of marginal electorates.
In the USA, the Obama campaign set a new standard for the effective use of social media. But while the Obama campaign, with its massive successes, legions of data scientists and programmers, seemed to signal a new way forward for digital citizenry, local efforts have missed the mark, employing immature and simplistic strategies that have failed to either capture the imagination of the public nor engage them in public debate.
In many ways, the social media performance across the election has been almost as lacklustre as the campaigns for the top job itself. As with most failures, the failure of social media to ignite the election has many fathers. Here are a few:
- Believing that social is like other media: We often say that social media is “conversational”, but this doesn’t stop even experienced marketers from using social media as a form of broadcast media. Take a look, for example, at the following to follower ratio of almost any politician. How many direct conversations take place on their timeline? How engaged are they in conversations that are started by their followers? And how often do they share content that doesn’t directly feature them or their cause? In believing that social is like other media, politicians and their strategists are leaving votes on the table and leaving undecided voters uncared for and unloved.
- Prioritising celebrity over relevance: While Kevin Rudd has run a largely Presidential style campaign in the media, this is less effective on social media. By contrast, Tony Abbott has presided over a campaign that prioritises a team of stars. But neither of these approaches work online because they tell the story of the team or the leader while ignoring the story of the voter. When you prioritise the celebrity of your participants rather than lionising your constituents, then your digital campaign is bound to fail. (And to be honest, this is a double failure for politicians, because good politicians understand the power of a constituency better than anyone.)
- Confusing reach with impact: Having a large number of followers does not necessarily translate to votes. Creating reach through social media is just buys you a seat at the table. It allows you to engage in one-on-one conversation at scale. But just as brands learned the hard way, there is very little value in a Like and limited value in an audience you choose not to engage. R “Ray” Wang’s Nine Cs of Engagement should be required reading for any digital strategist – but be warned – it’s an effective framework but it requires considerable creativity and effort to execute.
- Creating content not context: Sharing links can be useful, but unlikely to generate action unless there’s an acknowledgement of WIIFM (what’s in it for me). Context, however, is vital to providing relevance. Without addressing the context in which politicians operate, they are ignored or deemed irrelevant. This accounts for the significant levels of voter disengagement across the electorate in this election and is reflected well beyond social media in the endless stream of polling and opinion.
- Preaching to the converted over engaging the convertible: Take a quick look at the last few tweets of your favourite politician. Consider the tone of voice. What is the topic and the language used? Are they pitching to you like they want a job – or are they writing like you know what they are talking about? In short – do they engage you like you’ve made up your mind or not? Almost every social media update has a partisan undertone. There’s a hidden nod or wink that really, you are “one of us”. You are on the team. And all the polling currently indicates that most Australians are fed up with both teams. Social media represents a great opportunity for politicians to “get closer” to the public – yet its execution is pushing voters further away. They’re preaching to the converted rather than seizing the opportunity to engage those who may yet be converted.
- Facts are boring, engagement is sexy: The emergence of “fact checking” sites and teams has drawn a great deal of attention from the mainstream media. But there has never really been a question around the importance of facts – the question has always revolved around “whose fact is correct” – or can be relied upon. And that comes down to TRUST. In social media, a key determinant of trust is not related to fact but to engagement. And given that the currency of social media is engagement (not the number of “facts” that can be spouted), a great opportunity has been squandered.
- Data is just data without insight: Much has been made of the use of data science and analytics in the devising of strategy. But there is little evidence that the data is informing or driving the strategy or refining the tactics of the political campaigns. Now, I am a fan of data – but without insight and human analysis – what I call synthalitics – data is not only useless, it’s dangerous and can lead to wrong decisions and worse outcomes.
In many ways, social media had the potential to turn this election on its head. A deeper understanding of the nature of social could, dare I say it, swayed the outcome considerably.
One only has to consider the massive impact that has been achieved through the newsjacking of the @ImVotingLiberal account and hashtag. For an account that has only a few followers, the conversation and engagement has been astounding. Now, imagine if some of the politicians of all persuasions came up with campaigns that engaged voters in this style of creative exchange. Imagine how much more vital, relevant and dare I say FUN would this election have been?
Followup: It seems that the @imvotingliberal account has been suspended.