What to expect in a UK digital election campaign

browncameronclegg Months of speculation ended yesterday with the news that the UK general election will take place on May 6, a month from now.

Get ready, everyone, for four weeks’ of intense message-pushing, stunts, posters (Photoshopped or not), door-knocking, leaflets, TV debates, party election broadcasts (TV ads by any other name), and more.

What about digital forms of communication? Where will these tools fit within the political communication toolset?

It’s easy to see where the traditional web and other well-established methods of communication will fit. Websites have been a fixture of elections for the past decade and this one will be different only in how the web today offers politicians, their parties, the mainstream media and anyone else with a message opportunities to make use of the more interactive formats that developments in technology enable.

Opportunities to really engage with people.

And social media – where does that fit into the grand scheme of things?

Not very far at all in connecting with the voters, according to a study by Ovum as reported in PaidContentUK.

Despite much chatter that the UK’s upcoming May poll could be “the first social media election”, such a thing is looking unlikely.

Analyst group Ovum says parties have only gone as far as using social web tools “aimed primarily at communication and collaboration within the established caste of politicians, journalists, and interest groups”. That’s not very inclusive.

“The parties acknowledge that social media can be used to mobilise activists, engage new audiences, or harvest a long tail of donators,” says Ovum senior analyst Vuk Trifkovic. “However, unless the parties have a surprise up their sleeve, we do not believe that social media will play an integral part of the campaign efforts in the forthcoming elections.”

The flip side to this view is in a survey by PR firm Fishburn Hedges which, PR Week reports, shows that the next Parliament could see a huge number of social media-savvy MPs, many Generation Y types, sitting in the chamber tweeting and Facebooking during PM’s Question Time.

Fishburn Hedges questioned more than 100 candidates likely to win or retain their seats at the next general election.

The agency found that Facebook already plays a central role in much of this generation’s campaigning. The vast majority (83 per cent) of candidates are using Facebook in their campaigns, while 50 per cent use Twitter in the same way. Significantly, a massive 84 per cent also intend to use social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs to communicate with their constituents if they are elected to the House of Commons.

Some 82 per cent of candidates also said that once an MP they would treat communications from constituents received through social media such as Twitter and Facebook with the same priority as those received by letter or email.

Oh the disruption! Maybe this is exactly what British politics needs: new thinking, new behaviours, new ways of engaging with people. This is the precise act of bringing new behaviours and expectations into the workplace that I hear about and discuss with communicators in organizations.

Whatever politicians and others welded to The Establishment do with social media, or not as the case may be, believe one thing – this general election will be marked out by how ordinary people use social media to propel discussion, critique election campaigns, challenge politicians, put forward alternative points of view, and generally voice their opinions using informal tools and channels to connect and engage directly with others and influence opinion.

If any politician thinks he or she has control over any political message, he or she will think again when you read the stream of real-time comment on Twitter and see that cameraphone video of your “spontaneous” soapbox speech outside the Town Hall up on YouTube within ten minutes.

Maybe that’s the milestone we’ll see from this election in 2010 – the year that social media did have an impact on the outcome of the election campaign.

And that the impact will have come directly from the people. Powerful stuff.

[Later] I was reflecting on what I’ve written in this post and thinking about the last general election in 2005 when “social media” wasn’t a term used much and, when it was, it really meant blogging.

So what role did I think social media would play in the general election of 2005?

[…] One of the very interesting things to see is the role bloggers may play in the election campaign.

Will we see blogger commentary and opinion reflecting every political point of view imaginable? Will we see the rise of political blog commentary reach the relative influencing levels such as we saw in the US presidential election last year? Will we see those politicians who blog use their blogs as innovative campaign communication channels?

In short, will we see blogging become a ‘mainstream’ communication channel within the overall media space?

Yes, I believe we will see all these things.

Hmm, an early adopter’s wishful thinking in 2005.

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About Neville Hobson

Entrepreneurial business communicator with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Co-host of the weekly business podcast For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report. Also an occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Follow me on Twitter and Google+.