Published: 13 April 2010

The press are calling it the first ‘digital election’, where battles will be won and lost through digital marketing channels, writes Nick Towers of Sagittarius Digital.

It certainly proved an effective strategy for Barack Obama during last year’s race for the White House. Obama’s tactical use of email, mobile SMS and social networking websites put him head and shoulders above his rivals, while candidates who ignored digital marketing did so at their peril.

In the UK the main political parties are already following suit, with mixed results. On the one hand, David Cameron’s Twittering is gathering momentum and the use of Twitter and social networking sites, such as Facebook, has engaged a much younger, tech-savvy audience. On the other, one Scottish Labour candidate has been shunned by the Labour Party following allegedly offensive Tweets.

So how will politicians make the most of digital marketing? Both major parties are using email as a way at maintaining constant dialogue with supporters. The Conservatives are reported to have bought over 1,500 key phrases for Google AdWords advertising. Meanwhile, one BBC reporter has posted evidence of a search for ‘David Cameron’ returning an advert from the Labour Party, titled ‘The Tory risk to Britain’. So search marketing, as it is for most brands, is proving to be a key area of engagement.

In the US, one of Obama’s strategies was to ensure that the right message was delivered at the right time, through the right digital channel. His use of mobile ensured that he could communicate with his database of over one million mobile numbers right up to the moment they walked into the voting booths. Here in the UK, evidence suggests that while digital offers new and exciting ways to communicate, the messages are still the same and this could be costly, figuratively and literally.

Facebook, which for the first time overtook Google as the most visited site in the US for the week of 13 March 2010, has already been identified as a key channel for engaging a younger audience. Democracy UK has posted an app for downloading voter registration forms and is following this up with a Facebook ad campaign, targeting every 18- to 24-year-old in the UK.

Other research has shown that up to half of those aged 18 to 25 have become more interested in the election as a result of online political activity. This change in voter demographics could have serious implications and perhaps the resurrection of ‘Cool Britannia’ – a younger, more connected brand of politics and politicking.

With leading online competitive intelligence service HitWise UK reporting that the 2010 Budget saw voters significantly responding through financial and business related websites, the message to the parties is clear: the Internet will be a voice of the people.

Labour’s new media organiser, Kerry McCarthy (aka ‘Twitter Tsar’), has already acknowledged the power of the Web in allowing the public to carry the campaign of the party, relying on a stable community of online supporters to Tweet the party line and create their own viral campaigns.

So what can the parties try next...

Better mobile communications – with voters signing up for emails, only the Tories have asked for a mobile number to receive free text alerts. Mobile communications proved very successful in the US Presidential race as they can really add another dimension to a message through geography, timing and proximity.

Encourage more viral – the Tories have been the butt of many a digital viral with the series of ‘airbrushed’ David Cameron posters. The other parties need to learn from this low-cost Labour campaign and get the public to take up the political charge, virally.

Integrated campaigns – at the moment most digital activities are seemingly fractious. Better links from offline to online and across digital channels would increase longer-term engagement. This could include best use of digital TV’s ‘red button’ and Bluetooth broadcasting around key outdoor media sites.

And beyond social networks? Well, the parties could try Google Calendar to keep supporters up to date with key events. These can be made public and seamlessly integrate with users’ mobile and computer calendars.

They could also focus on adding value to the user for better long-term engagement. You could argue that the parties have already used many of the new channels but they’re still pumping out the same old campaign messages. For example, the iPhone App from the Tories is just another party line distribution message. Interesting, but not necessarily engaging. A better idea might be to use augmented reality and/or gaming mechanics to create something interactive and fun.

The very real threat of a hung parliament will undoubtedly add to the pressure to find new voters and political converts. Whatever the political parties do to win our support, one thing is certain: as a voting population we’ve never had it so good in terms of being able to openly discuss the issues of the day. The party that listens effectively is likely to be the one we see celebrating come May 6.

Nick Towers is Director of Digital at Folkestone-based Sagittarius Digital, part of Sagittarius Marketing.

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