Don’t Underestimate The Ontario PC Digital Team

As an Ontario election gets underway, focus turns to how the digital campaign will shape up and what, if any, impact the online activities will have on Election Day.

While Conservatives in Ontario, Canada and North America are often dismissed as out-of-touch, strictly analog technical neophytes, the Ontario PC Party has a solid record of innovation, tracing back to when Tim Hudak announced his candidacy for leader. It would be foolish to underestimate what the digital team (lead by Michael Edwards) will come up with for the 2014 contest.

As we wait to see what the digital teams for the three main parties push out leading up to June 12th, lets review the recent history of the Ontario PC Party in terms of utilizing technology to reach and mobilize voters. These deployments go beyond the recent reports of voter targeting infrastructure the Party has wisely developed in preparation to face off against the Wynne Liberals. Some of the online mobilization efforts began back in 2009.

I was privileged to be a part of the team during that time, serving as Director of Social Media for Tim’s leadership and then as the Director of Online Activism for the 2011 campaign. During that time, I worked with what I think was the most innovative digital team in Canadian politics: Joseph Lavoie, who co-chaired Tim’s social media efforts with me and was in charge of social media for the last campaign; the aforementioned Michael Edwards, who handled the online advertising and is currently leading the digital team for the 2014 election; my business partner Mark Hardwick who was the architect for our candidate website network; and Dean Tester, who was leading the efforts for the Leader’s Office and managed the various official digital assets for the Party.

Here are just a few of the great things we were able to build in that time:

Drive To Victory Voting Application

Even back in 2009, the Ontario PC team was exploring new ways to use technology as a tool to mobilize supporters. One of the first instances of this was the Drive to Victory Facebook application. As you can see with on this video created by Joseph to walk users through the application, it used gamification techniques to encourage supporters of Tim Hudak to spread the word and recruit other members.

Google Map Voting Guide

To focus on getting as many supporters to the polls to vote for Tim as possible, the leadership team wanted us to develop something that would tell PC Party members where there voting location was. Unlike a general election, there is no central body like Elections Ontario to send mailers or run raid spots with voting information. We needed to do it ourselves.

So Joseph and I oversaw the development of a tool that would use the Google Maps API to allow supporters to enter their address into our website and it would tell them the location of the voting location and how best to get there.

Cell Phone Brigade

While not exactly Internet based, this was still a product of our digital team. We felt that regular Party members, not phone banks, would be far more persuasive in contacting undecided voters. But we needed a way for anyone to do so easily and without having to sit at a phone bank.

We used a text messaging service that would allow supporters with a mobile phone to text our campaign shortcode to get a phone number of an undecided party member. They would then call that person on their mobile and talk to them about why they supported Tim. It was a great program and we had dozens of callers. The reaction was even better: people were pleasantly surprised to get a call from a party member, not a paid caller.

Change Ahead Facebook Application

In the lead up to the 2011 election, we all felt there should be a variety of options for supporters to take in the online space. Not everyone is a political hack, so we needed a vehicle where you could get involved in a way that suited you. I lead the team that developed the Change Ahead Facebook application, which used gamification to help mobilize voters.

Supporters could earn badges and points by taking specific actions: following Tim on Twitter, inviting their friends to join, watching a video, etc. We even incorporated offline actions, such as canvassing and phone banking. If you earned enough points, you could sit on top of the Leaderboard and even earn some prizes. In a short period, we had 2,600 users who earned over 405,000 points.

Synchronized Candidate Websites

Unlike most parties, our team didn’t think it made sense to have candidate information only on the main Party website. We felt it would make more sense to develop individual websites for each local candidate.
The challenge was to ensure those websites to keep them updated with the latest information, including new announcements and GOTV information.

Mark spearheaded the effort to create a centralized system that allowed Campaign HQ to automatically update every site with province-wide or even regional announcements or information, while allowing local teams the ability to update the site with local information, photos, etc. The sites looked great and were instantaneously updated with the message of the day.

Help Tim Win

One of the biggest challenges to mobilizing online supporters is to do so in a coordinated fashion. It is simple enough to send out a blast email, but it is more effective to create a centralized place for supporters to visit: it standardizes the activities and demonstrates that the supporter is part of a team, not acting alone.

Before the 2011 election, we deployed Help Tim Win, which was an online dashboard designed to post online tasks for supporters to take each day. It included everything from sharing content, liking Facebook posts or pages, modifying and posting tweets written for the message of the day, watching videos and a multitude of other available actions.

These are only a few of the tools the Ontario PC Party built and managed since Tim Hudak initially ran for leader. What will Michael Edwards and his team have on tap in the coming weeks? We will soon find out. But if history is any indication, I expect it will be something we’ve never seen before.

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