In the last three years all three main parties have invested more in digital communications, but will we see traditional grassroots canvassing replaced by Twitter campaigns and algorithms?

The recent appointments of expert strategists from abroad have sparked discussions about how the next UK general election will be transformed by the use of social media, big data and digital campaigning.

A re-tweet does not equal a vote
Social media is being used by all three parties, but with varying degrees of success. It’s only six years ago that strategic social media was first used, as part of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, when it was still dominated by students and bloggers. Things have moved on. Now, social media is part of any comprehensive communications strategy, and it’s increasingly important in politics and elections. It’s created a new platform for political dialogue –transferring the power of political messaging from the mass media model to peer-to-peer, public debate. Information and opinion can now race across networks, unchecked. Everyone has the power to express their opinions.

Social media can amplify and distribute messages well, but ultimately, policies and personalities are needed to spearhead campaigns. Obama’s tweets weren’t popular because they were strategically drafted, but because they were his words, and his policies.

So what’s next? Big data and algorithm strategies are now being imported from the US – along with the experts. Big data helps campaign strategists to understand the motivation of their target electorate, giving them insight on where to campaign and on what issues. It’s about sophisticated supporter databases, real time polling and mapping of changes in people’s attitudes, preferences and priorities.

During the 2010 General Election, the Conservative Party combined polling information with demographic data to work out which voters were the easiest to target. It allowed them to focus resources on a smaller number of carefully selected marginal constituencies. Advances in analysis tools and raw computing power mean the process is much faster and more manageable. This is now being done by each party in varying degrees. In the run-up to the UK general election of 2015, we’ll see much more real-time feedback based on sophisticated algorithms.

So will door to door canvassing be replaced by IT geeks behind Macs?
No, definitely not. Although all parties now recognise the importance of digital, they will still focus on the ‘on the ground’, front line and grassroot campaigns. David Alexelrod, Labour’s Senior Strategic Advisor, and latest US import, and Jim Messina, the Conservatives’ Strategic Advisor are both big advocates for digital-driven grassroots campaigns. My guess is they’ll be as likely to push for more grassroots campaigning as they are to focus on the digital side. And rightly so. Tweets and viral videos alone won’t change a swing voter’s mind alone. Elections are still about the policies, people and personalities.

Digital campaigning will not replace traditional campaigning – at least not in the foreseeable future. But it will help to make campaigning more efficient and, as all three party leaders will be hoping, more effective.

Natalia Marczewska is PLMR’s Digital Executive and has worked on various digital campaigns as well as a social media consultant at NATO HQ.

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