Get ready for the digital campaign

Political advertising is not permitted on television in Ireland. But there is nothing to stop parties doing it online, writes Hugh Curran

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday 4th of October

Recently, Enda Kenny confirmed that we’re going to have an election in early 2016. The campaigning has informally started, but as the election date looms, how should the parties use digital media to engage with voters and convert them to votes?

Large amounts of party funds will be spent on traditional collateral — pole posters, flyers, branded vehicles, policy launches and party political broadcasts. In 2011, there was a shift in attitude to digital and social — and we saw parties, and indeed independents, make use of the channels. But digital and social media have continued to grow in popularity and strategic importance since then.

Independent research reveals that Facebook consistently enjoys 60% penetration in Ireland, substantially up from about 49% in 2011. More interesting is that 72% of that number claimed to use Facebook every day, as opposed to 47% in 2011. these statistics aren’t just interesting for brands; political parties must also take heed.

The fundamental success of any communications stems from reaching people where they are likely to be. A large portion of our electorate have shifted where they do their talking and the parties must follow them if they are to spread their message.

The recent election in Britain is one that our political parties have watched very closely. For the first time, British voters were treated to large-scale political advertising on social channels because parties there understood the shift in peoples habits and chased the votes by communicating with them online.

Irish TV-watching habits have changed massively since 2011 and now 87% of 16–34 year olds are using video-on-demand services like YouTube, RTÉ Player and TV3 Player regularly. So, if your audience is watching more video online, it is an obvious area to start. Political advertising is not permitted on television in Ireland. But there is nothing to stop parties doing it online.

Political parties need to be creating shot pieces of video content that explain policy and back it up with figures and rationale. Give people a reason to believe what you are saying. A video with Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin or Gerry Adams talking directly to camera isn’t going to cut it.

People understand more complex messages a lot better if the points are accentuated with clear graphics, and video allows you to do that. Digital is not the forum for a three or four-minute long party political broadcast. The data shows that the longer the video the higher the drop off. Keep it short and to the point. It’s a 45-second explainer of your taxation policy, or a 60-second video showing your approach to reducing unemployment of cutting homelessness.

Another key advantage of social media is that it allows parties to engage with voters. The mantra must be: be active and converse. Respond. Parties should view social media almost as service brands do — as a method of customer service.

As an electorate, we are sharing, commenting and liking. We are interacting and we want brands to do the same, even if that brand happens to be a political party.

There’s a good reason why the metric I would used to measure campaign success isn’t just the follower numbers. It’s engagement. Do people like what we are doing? Are they engaging with it and are the performing some sort of action that lets me know that they do.

Digital also has a huge advantage in targeting voters. By leveraging the tools available to advertisers, political parties can target specific demographics or selected regions with certain localised messages.

One of the great things about digital is that you can see pretty quickly what is working and what is not working. If you measure everything, you can see what is working and adjust your model and spend accordingly. Measuring effectiveness means you can tell when the best time to send and email is or when the best time to post a video to Facebook is or what piece of content is a good performer and resonates with your audience.

The political party that gets digital right in this campaign will, I believe, see a larger percentage of younger people voting for them. By giving people the opportunity to see a message in the space where they spend most of their time, political parties will improve the opportunity to convert these people into votes.