UK politicians "need to learn the digital lessons of the US presidential election"

The US election has been a digital direct marketer's dream, but it helps when your star is as cool as Obama. Noelle McElhatton examines the lessons for UK politicians

The brouhaha is nearly over and there will be one winner. Actually, there will be two. The 2008 US presidential election, dubbed ‘the YouTube Election' by pundits, has been a triumph for digital media. Both John McCain of the Republican Party and his Democratic challenger Barack Obama have used an array of online channels from email to video to the full. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes joined Obama's team last year, helping to create the first ever socially-networked presidential campaign. 

Traditional DM media, such as direct mail and telemarketing, also played their part. In fact, the 2008 US presidential election saw the widest possible mix of offline and online media used to help candidates connect with some 200 million voters scattered across America's vast expanse. 

Such an embarrassment of media riches will not be lost on UK policymakers, or at least that's what direct and digital marketers are hoping. The topic of political marketing is hot right now, not merely because of the US election and a desire for diversion from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. 

A UK general election is potentially close - by law it has to happen by 2010, but Gordon Brown's perceived steady handling of the economic crisis may encourage him to call a snap election. And political marketing activity is starting to crank up. 

"This time round, the parties will take marketing seriously because the policy differences between them are eroding," says Jon Fricker, planning director at Haygarth. In September, the Conservative Party was reported to be searching for a DM agency through client-agency broker the AAR. The Labour Party, which has used WWAV Rapp Collins and EHS Brann in the past, is understood to be raising funds to hire its own DM advisers. 

Then, there's the recent controversy over a Liberal Democrat automated telemarketing campaign that fell foul of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

Such attempts at marketing make UK politicians look clunky, especially when compared with the slickness of Obama's campaign (see box, page 24). Even his use of automated calls - political messaging in the US is exempt from the country's Do Not Call legislation - had a dash of style and humour. When McCain began evoking the name of Joe Wurzelbacher - "Joe the Plumber" - on the campaign trail, Obama's aides responded with automated calls to voters in Colorado and Virginia purporting to be from local plumbers called Joe. 

In the campaign's early days Obama lacked media access, so his camp devised a direct-to-voter digital strategy, using a social-network-style campaign website, texting and search to great effect. Such marketing pizazz has not been seen since the Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960. 

The closest UK politics gets to digital sophistication are the Webcameron and Number10.gov.uk webcasts on YouTube. Of course conditions in the UK are different to the US, with candidates that lack the allure of Obama. But the issues facing politicians on both sides of the pond are similar: the economy, healthcare and education. "In 1997 the political landscape was about getting rid of the Tories and the task was easier to define," says Terry Hunt, chairman of EHS Brann and an adviser to the Labour Party at the time of the 1997 election. "Now it's much more complex, with people less interested in party politics than issues such as schools and the economy."

Fundraising maestro

The evolution of media since 1997 has added to that complexity. Marc Nohr, managing partner at Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, says the trick for any UK party will be to balance ‘push' and ‘pull' messaging through channels such as television, PR and DM, versus having a dialogue with voters using digital channels. "There's still a place for the 48-sheet poster and the Party Political Broadcast," says Nohr, who has advised political parties in the UK and South Africa. "But the US election has been more about engagement, which digital is good at."

Funds, or lack of them, will dictate a UK political party's media mix (see page 25). In the US, TV advertising still took the lion's share of the pre-sidential candidates' marketing budgets, not surprising when you have raised $600m as Obama did. With less spend available, UK political marketing will have to be more targeted.

Obama's war chest was partly down to email marketing aimed at a broader base of people, asking for small amounts. Emails requesting $50 or $100 were sent to addresses gathered via websites and interfaces such as Facebook and virals. As polling day neared, 3.1 million people had donated money. UK politicians will wonder if such a tactic could work here.

Yes it could, says George Nimeh, joint MD of Iris, but only after a relationship between voter and political party has been established. US-born Nimen received fundraising emails from the Democrats after registering on an Obama website. "The first emails I received were about engagement," he says. "I didn't get emails requesting money until I'd expressed an interest in Obama by registering on one of his websites. The emails asking for cash were the last step in a well thought-out eCRM process."

Assuming the UK parties' fundraisers do their jobs, channel choice will depend on which demographic groups the parties target. The primary focus will be on mass media because of the nature of democracy and the need to be inclusive. "If it's mass audience, then it's posters, TV and all the traditional media a party might use, pumping out clever topline messages such as ‘this is no time for a novice'," says Haygarth's Jon Fricker. But for swing voters and marginal constituencies, the channel choice must be more refined. 

Focusing marketing efforts on the marginal seats is a no-brainer, with options ranging from local websites to direct mail and telemarketing. Database marketing can help, says EHS Brann's Terry Hunt. In 1997, he and his team built Labour a data map of Britain, profiling swing voters and supporters.  

In 2007, Labour hired Experian Integrated Marketing to build a permission-based supporter database to drive email and direct mail campaigns, the results of which have yet to be seen. "There are about 50-60 key seats that decide a general election," says Mark Patron, chief executive of RedEye and former MD of data company Claritas. "Within those key seats there are 20 to 35 per cent swing voters, that's 2 to 3.5 per cent of population. Swing voters can be modelled reasonably accurately and the parties' strategies need to focus on that group."

Traditional direct and digital channels can help convert swing voters and key marginals. "I see a huge opportunity to tailor DM to marginal areas and make it grass roots," says John Townshend, creative partner at Rapier. Townshend recently received a door drop from the Conservatives that focused on his locality. "People are selfish and you can touch this nerve by focusing on issues that affect them," he says. The door drop's other winning attribute was the subtlety of its political branding. "It's a direct marketing art not to shout about the brand, but it does need to be entertaining and informative," he adds.

Floating voters are more likely to be issues-led, which is where digital media comes in. "Swing voters will search for information, and so political parties could go down the microsite route," says Matt O'Brien, managing director of digital agency Cheeze. "I could see the potential for launching a site such as economy.consersatives.org.uk and it getting a lot of hits."

Obama and McCain made good use of search, the ultimate ‘pull' tool, yet none of the three major UK political parties appear to have a paid or SEO search strategy.  Type "credit crunch" or "knife crime" into a search engine in the UK and the first page listings are dominated by media websites.

"Search is the ideal opportunity for politicians to position themselves against key issues," says Warren Cowan, chief executive of search agency Greenlight. "Anyone running for office should go to Google Local Search and see the correlation between policy areas and actual search activity. They then need to bid on those terms to let people know they have a decisive policy on, for instance, jobs, schools or knife crime."

Social media could be the answer to voter apathy, particularly among the under-30s. "Obama has two million potential voters registered on his Facebook site, so politicians here won't ignore that interaction," says Gary Sharpen, executive creative director at WDMP. 

But it's the degree to which UK politicians are willing to enter into social media's spirit of engagement that will dicate its usefulness. "The biggest challenge for politicians using social media is being prepared to interact with people, or having someone to do it for you," says Kevin Anderson, who as blogs editor on The Guardian reported from the US on the use of technology in the 2008 election. "Obama's contributions to Twitter are probably not him at all, but some 20-something on his team, but they do have Obama's tone of voice."

Choosing which social networks to target is an art in itself. "Facebook has a wider demographic than Twitter, which is a bit more cutting edge," says Cheeze's Matt O'Brien. "People on Twitter are the type who'll blog while on their mobile phones. McCain and Obama have Twitter accounts and it made them much more accessible."

Social networking

The unvarnished exposure of YouTube can be a politician's nightmare or dream, depending on personality. YouTube does Gordon Brown few favours, with the Number10. gov.uk webcast viewable alongside a video showing the-then Chancellor picking his nose during Prime Minister's Question Time

Compare this with a video of Tony Blair, speaking in French, congratulating Nicholas Sarkozy on becoming president of France which received more than half a million views. "It shows the importance of original and interesting content being the key to driving higher amounts of views and online word of mouth," says Zed Media's joint managing director, Kevin Murphy. 

So is a social media strategy worth having, if your politicians lack the smoothness of Blair and the cool of Obama?  "You can't afford to ignore these channels, just because most politicians aren't hip," says Nohr. "You would identify the key ministers who lend themselves to such media, as you do for TV. Just as some are more telegenic than others, so there will be some who are more cybergenic than the rest."

Townshend says politics today is as much about casting the right players for the right media, as it is about a party's policies. "New media is more intimate and tone of voice needs to convey empathy. Creating empathy with voters will be critical, but the danger for political parties is if they try to come over all matey."

There are those who counsel political parties against getting too hung up on digital. But as the ideological lines between the parties blur, the attributes of party leaders' personalities will become more important, which may swing media choice in favour of digital. 

The broadening of the demographics of UK internet use will also help. "We live in a world where 22 per cent of UK media spend is on TV and 11 per cent online, yet people spend more time online than watching TV," says George Nimen of Iris. "It's not quite the same with older people, but they are catching up."

And by general election time, who knows? There is no telling what hip young politicians may emerge, brandishing a killer one-liner tailored for posters and direct mail, or a memorable video that stirs the ‘socnet' generation out of its inertia. Whoever does so may find themselves on the winning side. n



Obama: winner of the digital race

It's high-fives all round the digital world in celebration of the role online channels played in the 2008 presidential election. 

"This was always going to be a digitally-marketed election," says Antony Young, CEO of Optimedia US. "Four years ago, neither YouTube or Facebook were around and yet they were pivotal in 2008." 

Shiv Singh, VP of social media at Razorfish in New York, says digital's power for politicians lies in its measurability. "It's so quantitative, in the sense that you can see how many views McCain's videos has on YouTube and how many supporters Obama has on Twitter."

Obama was judged to have waged a far superior digital campaign. There is an Obama presence on more than 30 different social networking sites and his campaign's use of texting to encourage people to vote is sure to become standard in any general election. 

McCain's campaign embraced paid search and bid on Obama issues-based keywords such as "mortgage crisis". 

The official McCain website johnmccain.com was "a more simple experience - the basic elements of quick and digestible information without any bells and whistles," says Jason Klein, joint CEO of New York-based Special Ops Media, part of LBi International. "It makes sense for the type of voter he was chasing."  

Two elements of Obama's campaign stand out for digital commentators. "For me, it's between mybarackobama.com, for its laser-like focus on getting Obama to the White House, and his campaign's free iPhone application," says Kevin Anderson, The Guardian 's blogs editor. 

Obama's campaign website harnessed all the best attributes of social media. "They leveraged mybarack-obama.com to convert campaigners into marketers," says Singh. "Anyone could go to the Obama site and discuss how to support him and rally people together." 

The iPhone application used GPS to find campaign offices or rallies and had a ‘donate' button to give the campaign money. "That was an idea that came from Obama's volunteer team," says Anderson. 

But Team Obama featured professionals too - from a line up of smaller, lesser known shops to the co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, who seconded himself onto Obama's campaign team last year. His agencies included Chicago-based AKP&D Media & Message, Murphy Putnam Media and Omnicom's GMMB.

LBi-owned Syrup was tasked by two Obama-supporting filmmakers and musician will.i.am to produce the Hope.Act.Change site, where supporters could upload their photos to form a giant mosaic. 

McCain's advisers included Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, considered to be heavyweight Republican media strategists.