As part of his series of posts about the various parties’ digital election strategies, one of the BBC’s technology bloggers, Rory Cellan-Jones, took note a couple of days ago of the fact that the Conservative party had paid google some money so that, if you searched for Gordon Brown, the first thing you saw was a sponsored link pimping an article at the Conservatives’ website which solemnly informed the reader that the Unite union are just like the Militant Tendency used to be back in the 1980s. (It seems as though there’s no longer a sponsored link to the Conservatives next to this search – I’m not sure why that is.) Apparently, the Conservatives have paid for sponsored links previously. Rory Cellan-Jones sees this as evidence that ‘political parties are learning the ins and outs of search advertising’. But are they really?
I mean, yes, obviously, in a basic sense the Conservatives have cottoned on to the fact that they can use a comparatively small amount of money to possibly attract the attention of surfers who are looking for information about one of their opponents. (Although I have to say, personally speaking, I routinely ignore the sponsored links that pop up alongside and above searches, just like I routinely ignore web adverts, so I’m not sure how successful the strategy could ever be.) But, honestly, how many people in the UK who want to find out about who they should be voting for are going to google Gordon Brown? If the Conservatives had paid for sponsored links alongside the search for, say, Labour manifesto 2010, or what will happen if Labour win the election, or Labour and Unite, or Labour links to trade unions, or unions political contributions maybe I’d have been more impressed, but if you follow the links you’ll see they haven’t (or, at least, they hadn’t at the time of writing). They haven’t even gone for Gordon brown unions, which is surely what most people would naturally search for if they wanted to find out about Gordon Brown’s relationship with the trade union movement.
So it seems as though, even if the Conservatives’ are learning about search advertising, the particular search term they’ve selected suggests they have an awful lot more left to learn, not least about what people actually search for. Then there’s the matter of what the link pointed to. I’ll give the Conservatives some credit here. At least they linked to some actual content, not just their homepage, which should increase the likelihood that the clicks they’ve bought will translate into actual time spent reading their material.
On the other hand, an article about the Militant Tendency seems to have been a very peculiar choice. For one thing, after 13 years of Labour government it’s going to be quite a hard sell to persuade floating voters that an X in the wrong box will lead to a militant communist dictatorship – not that this has stopped the Daily Mail from trying. For another thing, the Militant Tendency scare was a long time ago. It’s at the furthest edge of my personal memories of politics, and I’m an old man, or at least I am relative to the young voters the digital strategy is designed to appeal to. And it’s not like it’s a particularly famous interlude either. I suspect a politics geek like me would know all about Derek ‘Degsie’ Hatton trying to go mano a mano with Neil Kinnock and losing badly, whatever age they were, but would a 20-year-old without much interest in politics know about it? I’m not so sure they would. Actually, that’s a lie, I’m pretty much certain they wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even be confident how many of them would know off the tops of their heads who Neil Kinnock was.
There’s also the more general point that, if you’re trying to attract younger people, going on about something that happened before they were born isn’t a particularly good idea. Not because young people are shallow, or easily bored, or uninterested in anything except stabbing or shagging everyone they come into contact with – that’s an ageist myth spread by the likes of the Daily Mail – but just because things that happened before you were born automatically feel like the past, and not the recent past, either. For example, The Beatles have always seemed like a decidedly historical band to me, the kind of thing that feels like it belongs to a wholly separate era of archive footage, like the second world war, even though The Beatles only actually split up three years before I was born.
There’s another way that the strategy seems rather ham-fisted to me, and that’s the fact that the link was directly to the Conservatives’ own website. This is potentially a problem, I think, because it strikes me that people – especially the younger voters the digital strategy is designed to engage with – are far more likely to be persuaded by what appears to be independent opinions on the key issues than they are what the politicians are saying themselves. I’ll be honest, I don’t know the ins and outs of electoral law, but I assume it would be illegal for any of the political parties to use their funds to directly set up websites that were not clearly identified as associated with them – at least, if it’s not illegal, it should be. But this election has been known about for a long time, and with a little planning the Conservatives could have used the money they’re spending now with google to invite independent organisations and groups of individuals who share their beliefs to seminars in which they’d told them about the possibility of setting up campaigning websites, and then paying for sponsored links on google. A link to, say, a group of concerned businessmen expressing worry over close relations between the unions and government would be a lot more persuasive than an article on the Conservatives’ website saying the same thing.
The truth is, I think all of this is symptomatic of a much greater problem with understanding what a digital election campaign means, and I think the problem is affecting the other political parties just as much as it is the Conservatives. Ever since the start of the Obama campaign, I seem to have read screeds and screeds of text from people commenting on the concept of a digital election campaign, and how that can be transferred across the Atlantic to Britain. Almost all of the commentary seems to have focussed on what tools need to be used – facebook, twitter and so on – but very little on what is actually being said via those means.
Yes, it’s true that the Obama campaign made very effective use of social networking, and were able to interact directly with a growing powerbase even while the mainstream media were saying that Obama didn’t have a prayer of getting the Democratic nomination… well, the Presidency for sure… oh. But they were able to interact with and grow their powerbase, not because of some magical advantage conferred upon them by the Elders of the Internet, but because what they were saying resonated with the kinds of people who use facebook and twitter every day. Obama’s ‘hope-y, change-y thing’ (to quote Sarah Palin) was enormously popular with younger voters, and younger voters (and a fair few older ones, too) use facebook and twitter for interacting with each other, and so they automatically, without thinking, used them to talk about and organise for the election. It wasn’t the way the Obama campaign communicated with the electorate that got them enthused and fired-up, it was what they said. The only advantage the new media conferred on the campaign was the ability to get their message out to their supporters without the interference of the mainstream media.
All the coverage of the idea of a digital election campaign in the UK seems to have concentrated on the medium. There seems to have been lots of talk about what strategies the political parties can follow to create a surge of digital support, but the thing is, it isn’t about strategy. Just as in America, it’s not so much about how a politician communicates with the electorate, it’s about what they say while they’re doing it.
If any party wants to create the foundations for significant online support, then all they have to do is make sure their material is available and accessible – so, post plain-English summaries of their policies on their websites, put up their announcements and speeches and press conferences on youtube, that sort of thing. If what a particular party is saying is popular, if people agree with it, then they will start passing around links to that material, and to things other people have said about the material, and it will naturally start trending on twitter, and facebook groups will be formed, and the non-political blogs will start to discuss it, and suddenly the party’s ideas will seem to be all over the internet. All of this will happen spontaneously, even though the party has done nothing more than make the information available. On the other hand, if what a party is saying isn’t popular, if people don’t agree with it, then they won’t post links, the keywords won’t trend on twitter, the facebook groups will be smaller, the non-political blogs won’t pay any attention, and the party will be hard-pressed to find their ideas anywhere outside their own websites. There isn’t a ‘digital election strategy’ in the world that can change that, because there’s no way to manufacture a spontaneous explosion of popularity – either something’s popular, or it isn’t.
Social networking, web 2.0 – whatever you want to call it – is fundamentally about people talking to people. This is what the internet has always been about, at it’s best. It’s a many-to-many medium, not a few-to-many medium, like newspapers or radio or TV. With few-to-many media you can use money, and political influence with newspaper proprietors, and laws guaranteeing equal TV coverage to make it seem like you’re more popular than you are, but in a many-to-many medium you can’t do that. There’s no way to make it look like lots of people are saying ‘Hey, Party X’s policy on Y is really good’ unless there actually are lots of people saying that.
If any of the parties want to have a successful digital election campaign it’s really very easy. All they have to do is make sure their policies are popular. If they can’t do that, then their digital campaign will be just as unsuccessful as a traditional one would be in the same circumstances. When push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter if a wannabe PM is tweeting or pursuing the Midlothian campaign – politics always, ultimately, comes down to policies, and how popular they are.