Last week I spent a few days at the Labour Party conference. It was an interesting experience seeing the breadth and variety of opinion on all kinds of issues.
One area where views were split really stuck with me – Social Media.
The leader, Jeremy Corbyn and lots of activists, seemed convinced that social media promised to have a huge impact on the outcome of future elections.
Others seemed convinced it was a waste of time as a campaigning tool.
I think both these points of view are wrong.
After criticising the mainstream media Corbyn’s leader’s speech emphasised the scope for Social Media as the best way of reaching the electorate.
“Our new Deputy Leader Tom Watson is well up for that challenge. He’s leading the charge and leading the change of the much greater use of digital media as a key resource.
That is the way of communication, it is not just through broadsheet newspapers or tabloids, it’s social media that really is the point of communication of the future. We have got to get that.”
And in the hallways and fringe meetings lots of people seemed to think that social media was the answer to all the party’s communication challenges.
At the same time, almost the exact opposite sentiment was being voiced.
In a training session hosted by the inimitable Jess Phillips she was keen to encourage us to avoid hiding behind social media and get out and knock on doors.
Now I don’t think JC would claim social media is a silver bullet. Nor I’m sure Jess Phillips wouldn’t recommend giving up on social, but I do think there’s a danger in an overly optimistic view. A pessimistic one is dangerous too.
Having built up a series of conferences using mainly social media, and particularly Twitter, I hope the party can take a more pragmatic view. Below follows a few lessons I hope they’re able to take on board.
There are good social media campaigns and bad social media campaigns.
One thing that struck me in the training session about planning community campaigns was a general scepticism of social media as a campaigning method.
People expressed legitimate concerns about echo chambers, not speaking to the whole community, trolls and had lots of examples where they weren’t able to turn noise and support on social media into tangible change in their community.
These stories were immediately followed by stories of challenges with more conventional off-line campaigns.
When social media campaigns failed it was social media’s fault, when other campaigns failed it was due to demographics of areas, poor planning, bad luck and a variety of other reasons.
That struck me as crazy.
It wasn’t whether the campaign was based on social media that decided whether a campaign was successful or not.
Campaigning is bloody hard work and despite the best intentions doesn’t always work regardless of whether the campaign relied on Facebook, knocking on doors or any other campaigning method.
Where social media doesn’t have the impact you’d hope there’s a temptation to blame the channel, when there can be a variety of reasons.
The same is true when a campaign is successful. This campaign to take supplies to the refugees in Calais didn’t happen “just” because it started on Facebook.
Just as you can have successful and unsuccessful campaigns offline, equally you can have good and bad social media campaigns, and that’s not social media’s fault.
It’s a skill that requires knowledge and patience.
The barrier to entry to setting up a social media profile is really low. That’s a huge part of its appeal but that doesn’t make the learning curve any less steep. Especially if you’re trying to take on vested interests and large organisations.
Very few of the activists I met during the conference would have the confidence to fire-up some graphic design software and start knocking up campaign flyers and pamphlets, but did feel more confident having a going at social.
On one hand this is great, it’s encouraging people to get involved and participate but it’s also putting people off when they’re not immediately successful.
It’s very easy to start but surprisingly hard to master. Many of the professional marketers at events I organise have hits and misses. It shouldn’t surprise us that people just starting out at social media might find it a challenge.
The party do offer training on digital campaigns like this one coming up in December but they can only scratch the surface.
The good news is that there’s lot of resources out there if you know where to look.
Two I recommend highly is Moz’s Beginners Guide to Social & Hubspot’s list of Social Media Resources. These aren’t aimed specifically at political campaigns but most of their lessons are transferable.
But just because social media is so easy to pick up, I hope the naysayers appreciate that a commitment to learning will improve the likelihood of success and the optimists realise that there is effort required to master social media.
Understand the dynamics of who interacts on social media.
“Twitter’s just an echo-chamber and not really worth the effort” is a common sentiment, and it’s true, its audience is much smaller than some of the other platforms but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
“Our Facebook page is watched like hawks by other parties” it’s inevitable in the small world of local politics you’re going to attract the attention of electoral rivals. Especially as, in my experience, it seems dislike of “others” seems to be a bigger motivator of local activists rather than ideology or ambition.
This all reminded me of a rule of thumb coined by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba – the 1% Rule.
In politics when people talk about 1 percenters, they’re talking about the economic elite, but in social media it has a different meaning. A meaning that I think would be useful in anyone involved in social media and politics.
“The 1% rule states that the number of people who create content on the Internet represents approximately 1% (give or take) of the people actually viewing that content. For example, for every person who posts on a forum, generally about 99 other people are viewing that forum but not posting.“
This is a good thing to remember next time you feel trapped in an echo chamber or swarmed by the comments of supporters of other political parties.
Social Media isn’t just one thing.
This is a bit of a bugbear of mine.
Social media is a catch-all term covering the platforms we’d explicitly think of like Twitter and Facebook, but can easily include YouTube, Podcasts, Blogs, Forums, Messaging Apps and all kinds of other platforms and technologies.
But too often in the world of politics it feels like social media means Twitter and Facebook.
Where local organisations/representatives are short on time they might prioritise certain platforms.
I’ve seen Peter Kyle and his team do a great job of this with Facebook, but just because Facebook is the most widely used platform, it shouldn’t be your primary focus.
Ignoring forums might be a great example of this.
A while ago I worked with a client targeting young Mums. So with finite resources the logical next step would be to find which out Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc. had the best demographic overlap?
No I’d be best spending the limited time I have on Mumsnet. That’s where Mums are, that’s where I want to be.
You get this all the time too in local politics. It would be great to get more followers of a party’s own Facebook Page, but would the efforts of activists not be better spent where the audience already is, on existing forums, FB groups, etc?
I know there’s some talented people working and training people on social media at Labour and the other political parties, I don’t envy their job but we mustn’t treat as a shiny new object or blame it needlessly.