Electioneering, evolved

Have digital tools and platforms really taken election campaigning up a notch?

Read time 5min 10sec
Joanne Carew.
Joanne Carew.

SA is on pause. With our national elections just a few weeks away, it feels like we're living in the final scene of a big budget sports movie.

You know the one I'm talking about, when everything switches to slow motion and the actors, and audience, hold their breath as they wait to see if that final throw made it into the hoop, or if the player leaped over the line just in time to score a touchdown.

It's a time of electioneering, not action. Politicians visit rural communities, they erect campaign billboards and they take public transport like regular folk. With the rise of technology and social media, you'd expect that digital innovations are being used to connect with voters, but is it happening?

I'm not talking about the advanced tech we recently saw being used to manipulate voters; ahem, I'm looking at you Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

I'm talking about using digital technology - and a little smarts - to actually "seduce" voters. In the same way that brands try to win consumer loyalty, it makes sense that political parties would employ similar tactics to secure votes.

Shopping around

I like to think of voting as a bit like buying a new car.

If you've always driven a Toyota - and been happy with your ride - chances are that you'll head to a Toyota dealership when it's time for an automotive update. If it ain't broke, right?

Maybe you haven't had the best experience with your current wheels. Your car didn't deliver on its promises and you're keen for something a little different. Now the pressure is on Toyota to change your mind, retain your loyalty and prevent you from heading to the car dealership across the road.

So, I guess they are using digital tools to speak to us. But they don't seem to be speaking our language.

Conversely, if the other manufacturers play their cards right, they might just be able to entice you to try out what they're offering. This is the crux of it all: it's up to Toyota to not lose you and up to its competitors to lure you away.

For me, voting works in the same way. If you still have faith in the political party you generally support, it's likely you'll vote for them again. If, like many of us, you're unsure about where to place your X on Election Day, you're probably perusing the alternatives. This means that now is the perfect time for politicians to make their play.

While one would expect savvy campaigners to be spending a lot of money, time and energy on bolstering their online presence, I'm just not seeing it. Over the last few months, we've been exposed to the usual radio and TV ads that are "paid for by the political party concerned" and I'm sure we've all noticed the party posters attached to street poles across the nation's major roads.

But how are these aspirant leaders using smart technologies to communicate with the public and convince us to vote in their favour? Sure, the top political parties do have a sizable two million(ish) followers between them on Twitter but are they actually using these new platforms effectively?

I used the example above about buying a car because the way I see it, it would benefit public servants to learn a thing or two from modern businesses. These guys are spending more and more time on developing relationships with us.

They're ramping up their customer experience efforts in an attempt to earn our loyalty, which typically entails speaking to us using the platforms we know and use every day.

But our political parties just don't seem to get it. Sending countless SMSes - often unsolicited - to members of the public or spamming people with robotic, automated calls is not only tone deaf, it's hellishly annoying.

Intermingling poverty porn with campaign videos that leverage female sexuality to pique voter interest also misses the mark. Some have even gone so far as to share the personal contact information of well-known journalists at the height of their electioneering.

So, I guess they are using digital tools to speak to us. But they don't seem to be speaking our language.

Lessons from across the pond

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a conference by Harper Reed, the brain behind Barack Obama's data-driven re-election campaign in 2012. At the event, he shared insights around how blending tech and marketing won the US presidency.

You may be wondering if it's valid to compare SA and the US? Especially given the fact that we're rather far behind the US from a connectivity and access perspective. Well, in this instance, it is. That's because Reed and his team did a lot of their campaigning and fundraising using pretty standard stuff like SMSes and e-mails.

But here's the difference: they used the data gathered through this communication to better target future interactions. This made it easier to address voters' problems and actually listen to their complaints.

They also analysed social media information and used this data to talk to people living in states that were highly contested.

What for me was really interesting about Reed's strategy was that it wasn't so much about having the latest and greatest technology, or being particularly tech-savvy. It was about using insights from these solutions to deliver better messaging, meet people where they're at and develop real communities. And that's where the real difference comes in.

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