Will this be the internet election?

March 10, 2010

With one eye on what happened in the U.S. Presidential election  in 2008, and another on the increasing use of the Web in almost every area of British life since the last general election in 2005, the presumption is that the Internet will play a much bigger role this time. But how much bigger?

Some observers are already playing down the likelihood of a seismic shift along the lines of that achieved by Barack Obama. eDemocracy points out the limited the size of the electorate open to any influence, let along that of social media. Meanwhile, Micah L Sifry of techpresident points out how Britain lacks some of the key ingredients that made it possible to build up the use of new techniques in the U.S. — greater freedom in fund-raising, a long campaign, and competition for leadership within political parties.

Nevertheless, all three main British parties have studied what Obama did and all three are busy experimenting with new approaches. Before looking at what they are up to, a reminder of what Obama did. There’s an excellent Edelman presentation on Obama’s social media strategy which neatly sums up the scale of his operation and how it integrated online and offline aspects of campaigning:

Edelman slide on what Obama did with social media activity

Just as in the States, there will be two very different battles being fought in the British campaign — the ‘air war’ of national media campaigns aimed at generating the maximum publicity and the ‘ground war’ of getting the vote out at local level. The ‘air war’ is still largely being fought using central staff at HQ and traditional ‘top-down’ broadcast techniques. It’s in the ‘ground war’, the less glamorous and less visible side of the election, where insiders say the real innovations are being tested.

Digital staffing

At a very basic level you can get an idea of what the parties are putting into this by the size of their staffing at HQ. The Conservatives have eight in their digital campaign team with a ninth soon to arrive, Labour has five and the Liberal Democrats have three full-time and four others with split responsibilities. In comparison, Obama is thought to have had 150 working on his operation by the end.

However, some of the most powerful elements of digital campaigning are, by their very nature, decentralised: measuring their effectiveness by the size of central staffing may be missing the point.

The data

Unfortunately, the parties are a little reluctant to share details on some data. That’s partly down to understandable concerns over comparability — online statistics are more of an art than a science, as anyone involved with website management will confirm. And some of the systems being used are fairly new and unproven. I’m hoping to be able to fill in some of the gaps as the election approaches but there’s sufficient data to get a rough idea about what’s going on. The table below is based on figures collected last weekend.

British Internet election statistics

Email distribution lists

This aspect of the Obama campaign is widely credited by social media strategists as being its most important digital component (see ePolitics for a detailed analysis of the Obama formula). Under a Chief Technology Officer, a sophisticated form of customer relationship management was used to manage a pipeline of potential supporters and to gradually convert them into donors, organisers and voters. And the primary tactic was carefully targeted, personal emails based on the geography and interests of the recipient.

All the British parties have invested in similar systems to allow them to target emails to people according to their interests and, in some cases, by where they live. This is part of the move  towards  ‘permission marketing‘ under which parties aim to build up support by tailoring messages to voters’ interests rather than spamming them with one-size-fits-all broadcast messages. It’s an important change of tactics.  Pity then that none of them so far have said much about the size of their email distribution lists.

Social networks

Obama picked up about 5 million ‘friends’ on 15 social networks with a campaign that largely pre-dated the rise of Twitter (the figure in the table is the President’s current following). The British parties are being more disciplined — Facebook is favourite for volunteer support and Twitter for raising media awareness.

The Conservative team prides itself on leading in terms of followers for its main party presence on the three main social networks. The other parties say this is the wrong way of looking at it — social networking is about decentralisation and giving volunteers the means to raise awareness and funding.  A better measure may be the number of supporter groups on Facebook. I did a basic search for Facebook groups affiliated to the main parties   and it shows Labour leading in terms of friends for the biggest groups but the Liberal Democrats emerging with the greatest number of groups with 50 members or more.

Research by TweetMinster suggests that Labour dominates Twitter. But the party’s MPs and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates hit a bit of a dip last week, according to total tweets posted. Despite David Cameron’s  well-publicised joke at tweeters’ expense last year, the Conservatives’ Twitter account leads the pack. What no-one knows, however, is the significance of Sarah Brown’s Twitter presence. The Prime Minister’s wife now has nearly 1.2 million followers and BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson described her last week as one of the most influential figures in British politics.

Website visitors

The Obama strategy was to steer people back to mybarackobama.com whenever possible so as to offer more resources and tools to facilitate  fund-raising and publicity, and for the campaign team to capture more information about potential volunteers. All three main parties in Britain have set up their own versions — Labour has membersnet, and there’s myconservatives.com and LibDemACT for the Liberal Democrats. Labour has built up around 30,000 members over the past three years and puts the Conservatives at about a third of that.


Video was a huge part of the Obama campaign — not just the officially-produced content but also the enormous number of videos created by supporters (more than 400,000). Not one of the three parties has yet prioritised this  latter user-generated aspect.

The Conservatives believe they have an advantage here in the form of webcameron, which is borne out by the numbers. Digital campaigners in the other parties believe that this is old-fashioned broadcast-style advertising in new media clothing. But they do admit that it has been done well and also that this is precisely what Obama did — taking the money from his online campaigns and ploughing it into TV advertising.


With three million registrants for text alerts, mobile was a crucial aspect for Obama. The use of text to alert supporters to the naming of the Vice President was one of the most talked about features of the campaign.  Things have moved on since then and the widespread use of the iPhone has encouraged the Conservatives to launch an election ‘app‘  with Labour and the LibDems set to follow.

Phone/doorstep contact

This is what all the campaigners in the ‘ground war’ are aiming at — maximising the contact with potential voters. By wiring up volunteers to a sophisticated database of potential supporters, Obama’s team was able to mobilise a huge amount of volunteer phone calling to get the vote out.

Influenced by Obama, Labour has its Virtual Phone Bank, a tool that allows volunteers to call target voters when they have free time. And the party has a system at HQ that updates in real time and allows party workers to call a new volunteer within hours of them joining up.

Labour believe that smart networked techniques like these have helped them to double their weekly doorstep contacts compared to the equivalent point of the last election. And one organiser believes that the various phone efforts are generating 100,000 Labour calls a week.

The Conservatives meanwhile maintain that their approach is every bit as sophisticated but are reluctant to put out statistics that are hard to verify. They remain convinced that they’re ahead in the ‘ground war’ and for evidence point to the British Election Survey published at the end of last week. This showed that 58 per cent of voters had received some form of contact from the Conservatives in the past six months, including electronic communication, the LibDems were second on 46 per cent while Labour were on 35 per cent.

How things stand

Labour and the LibDems maintain that with more generous funding the Conservatives are mainly fighting a broadcast campaign and haven’t adopted the kind of decentralised, networked approach used so effectively by Obama. The Conservatives believe that their opponents misunderstand how they are blending traditional techniques with sophisticated targeting via web technologies at the local level.  There are large gaps in the data and it’s difficult to draw any robust conclusions at this stage, other than that so far this election does not look like it will have anything like the online footprint of the Obama campaign.

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