Social Media Lessons From Election 41

Submitted for the June 2011 edition

With the federal election now close to two weeks old, I’ve had some time to review the election campaign and what impact, if any, social media had on electoral politics in Canada.

As someone who works in the field of social media, it was interesting to watch the fluctuations in sentiment around social media itself from both the media and the punditry. On the eve of the election being called, the chatter was how much of a factor social media would be during the election. Once there was no real voter movement, the excitement around online campaigning seemed to deflate – only to be resurrected by stories about vote mobs, Facebook stalkers, sh#t Harper did and talk about “viral videos”.

After much thought, review of data and articles on social media during the election as well as some pointed conversations with seasoned campaigners much smarter than me, I have crafted a few conclusions that I can draw in the aftermath of one of the more exciting elections we’ve had in Canada.

Nobody Has This All Figured Out. Yet.

That’s not to say that various parties didn’t do some great (and not-so-great) things during the election period. But no one party nailed everything. I’d say the NDP was probably the closest to running a fully integrated campaign: from their mobile app, to web-only videos to their online town halls, regular e-mail fundraising campaigns and their online ads, they put a lot of resources into the effort.

To be fair, so did the Liberals. But I give the edge to the NDP, who had a lot fewer resources to work with, but still were able to put together an online offering that rivaled their better-funded rivals. Good for them.

But the 41st election is proof positive that politicians and parties still use social media for transmitting talking points rather than engage voters. And all parties are guilty of that. To some extent, it makes sense: a good message (more on that below) plus discipline (and massive ad buys) can equal results. The Conservatives showed us that.

Content Is Still King

The election provided more proof that social media is but a tool. The message is and will continue to be the most important part of any social media effort you produce. Despite the laudable efforts they made online, the Liberals had no clear message and their messenger did not inspire. And the results reflected this. The Conservatives had absolute clarity on their key messages (as did the NDP) and were able to leverage all channels to deliver it.

But it is worth repeating: you can have the flashiest, most integrated campaign in electoral history. You can have a large presence on every channel, every app.   But if your message (or to a lesser extent, messenger) doesn’t connect or resonate, you’re done. Michael Ignatieff is the poster child of this very important rule.

Satire Wins, Especially Online

Beside Twitter’s dominance (which I speak about below), I think one of the bigger social media lessons we can take away from the election is that people are still attracted to entertainment-type content. Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell famously said that an election isn’t the place for serious discussion on important, complex issues. Well, some of Campbell’s theory was borne out by a lot of the more popular online items discussing the election.

Canadians  gravitate to satire as a preferred form of commentary and this expressed itself in the digital environment. Sites like Shit Harper Did and (the now defunct) NDP Hashtag Fail were some of the more widely shared/viewed websites. The high-minded Apathy Is Boring campaign got just over 9,000 views on their YouTube channel while someone (^not) playing Ryan Goseling got over 200,000 views alone.

Some of the more popular videos put out by Parties used humour and wit, rather than a frontal attack, to skewer opponents.   As an example, the most popular election video put out by the Liberals was about Stephen Harper being a Facebook stalker.

These results reflect significant data from the marketing world that people primarily use social media such as Facebook and YouTube to be entertained. Those who understood that reality tended to do much better in attracting attention than those who wanted to engage in (dry) policy debates.

Twitter Is An Echo Chamber

If you want concrete proof that the main audience of political debates on Twitter were the participants themselves, look no further than the analysis one observer conducted on the top subjects being discussed on Twitter. Two items in the top five, “Stephen Harper’s question limit” and the “Conservative Party screening of event attendees using Facebook” couldn’t creditably be seen as issues that preoccupy a large swath of Canadians.  In fact, they are only of interest to the media, the various parties themselves and political hacks.

As the Star’s Chantal Hebert noted, the media and the campaigns are largely “talking amongst themselves” on Twitter. Further, there aren’t  really that many Canadians engaged in the election conversation. In reviewing the volume of tweets created by Canadians in general (and by using some assumptions from other jurisdictions), I did the quick math and computed that only 0.12% of those tweets were election-related.  Not exactly national in scope.

In Canada, Likes Do Not Equal Victory

I have written about this a few times, so I won’t go into detail here except to say that in the U.S., he/she who has the most likes/mentions/followers for the most part has the most votes. Not so much in this election. Michael Ignatieff pulled ahead on Facebook and stayed their right to the end, although Jack Layton certainly gave him a run for his money. While the Conservatives and Prime Minister Harper certainly grew over the election period, no where near as much as their opponents.

In fact, one of the most interesting data points that I see coming out of the election is how overrepresented the Liberals were online. The support they seemed to have going in to and throughout the campaign online had no approximation to their offline (i.e. real) support. The sites that I reviewed that were tracking those stats all had the Libs way out in front – even leading up to Election Day.  To illustrate, on YouTube, the Liberals doubled the Conservatives in number of views (2.1M vs 1.2M) and were even higher than that the NDP, who came in third 890K).

Interestingly, Twitter  was the only place where PM Harper began ahead and stayed there.  Jack Layton also had a very strong showing in terms of “share of voice” on Twitter and other places, which makes a lot of sense – in many ways, Layton was the story of the campaign.

But social media statistics need to be re-calibrated in the wake of this election. Buzz, mentions, likes and views did not translate into victory on election day. Especially if you were a Liberal.

Translating Online Activity To Offline Action Is Still A Challenge

There were a number of sites, mobs and movements that attempted to use technology to have a real impact on electoral outcomes. Whether it was raising awareness about the election itself or about those running for office, there was absolutely no shortage of projects dedicated to influencing how and if people voted.

But what was missing was real infrastructure – real means for getting people mobilized and inside the polling station. Vote mobs are great and I commend any effort to confront apathy. But how about holding a vote mob to rally at an advanced poll? Were there efforts to register and turn out those same people in the videos? It seems there was more effort in promoting the videos than ensuring participants actually voted.

The parties themselves seem to be taking incremental steps towards using technology to enable activists to campaign and to get voters to the polls. The Conservatives had Tory Nation, which was an Obama-style dashboard that gave supporters access to spread the word on their own. The NDP also licensed a program from the U.S. that created tools for campaign workers on the ground. These are both positive benchmarks.

But with limited funds and limited time, the challenge will continue to be how to find effective ways to leverage technology to empower volunteers and voters to take action in whatever way is appropriate. That kind of infrastructure takes time and money – lots of it; something all parties are challenged with. But it has the strongest promise of actually being able to impact the vote, especially in tight races – much more than a Twitter hashtag or a popular video.

This WAS the Twitter Election

But not for the reasons you think. I did a fair amount of eye rolling when I heard breathless commentary about how Twitter would be the “game changer” in the election; how this new technology would reshape how politics works in this country. It’s a web app, not the lightbulb.

But what Twitter lacked in real electoral impact, it certainly made up for in attention, discussion and obsession. I’ve seen more reports of Twitter mentions, reach and analysis that I thought were possible to produce in six weeks. Not only what was being discussed on Twitter, but countless stories were filed about Twitter itself.

There is no question that as the new kid on the block, Twitter completely dominated the discussion and was the “next big thing” in the eyes of the media, politicians and pundits. So, if this was an “anything” election in terms of social media, it was a “Twitter” election.

While I continue to review data (such as voter turnout demographics, etc), these were the main conclusions I can now draw from the election.   Agree?  Disagree?  Something I missed?  I encourage you to offer your thoughts in the comments, on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

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