A story in this week’s Hill Times suggested that the federal Conservatives are better positioned to take advantage of social media in the upcoming election campaign than their Liberal rivals.
What of this?
The article, as is often the case in discussions of online campaigns, confuses traditional Internet applications and social web 2.0 strategies, notably by failing to explain that social media derives its full reach from the conversations it engenders, not its usefulness as a bulletin board. But if the Conservative Party is, in fact, as the article suggests, a few strides ahead of the Liberals when it comes to online campaigning, most of this advantage appears to be built on a traditional online engagement platform that plays out only on the periphery of effective new media political campaigning.
In this regard, the Liberal Party is actually better positioned to take advantage of new media simply because it is not saddled with the rigid command-and-control mentality that currently characterizes Conservative communications strategy. This is not to suggest that we are seeing a creative and effective use of new media by the Liberals, only that a free-flowing social media conversation with Canadians–the hallmark of effective social media engagement–is more likely to emanate from the Grits than the Tories. This is a competitive advantage that the Liberal Party would be wise to exploit.
But a social media conversation with Canadians would have made the most sense for Michael Ignatieff if it had started last spring and had been used to solicit input and reaction to his party’s values and vision as well as in exploring possible policy options. Now that the Liberal leader is in major-speech mode, perhaps the best strategy available will be a more limited engagement using social media conversations to explain and listen. Even in this limited mode, though, social media engagement could help establish the Liberal leader as someone who listens and cares–useful in brand differentiation.
The last U.S. campaign is instructive as to the full potential of social media as both a powerful mobilizing force and dissemination tool . In addition to engaging Americans in a mobilizing political conversation that resulted in countless volunteers and millions of dollars for the presidential camapign, the Obama team used new media to share information (talking points, background, etc.) with their supporters and the online community in real-time, often immediately before and after major media or campaign events. This was designed not only to counter GOP counter-spin in blogs and online discussion boards, but more importantly, to give supporters arguments they could use around the water cooler and the kitchen table.
If we take the Obama online campaign model to illustrate, Mr. Ignatieff’s major economic speech before the Toronto Board of Trade on Monday would have seen this kind of information being communicated through traditional means such as e-mail blasts to Liberal members and the online community, but also through Twitter, Facebook, etc.. This did not happen. A summary of the Liberal leader’s speech was pushed out by the campaign through Facebook and Twitter the following day, almost 24 hours after the fact and after most interested Canadians had already formed an opinion.
While time may be running out for a new media conversation between Michael Ignatieff and Canadians, the Liberal campaign can still use the power of social media to energize and mobilize its base by giving it the tools it needs to support its views and beliefs in all of its social interactions.
Far from being an attempt at courting the “snob vote” as U.S. based Conservative strategist Patrick Muttard dismissed early Liberal TV ads, such a social media strategy would help take the Liberals’ message to what many see as a Conservative preserve: the Timmys of the nation. Double-double anyone?