In trying to understand how political parties will approach election campaigning this year there are a number of questions that need to be asked. How much are parties spending on election campaigns? What strategies are being used to reach out to voters? What strategies are being used to convince voters? How is data analytics affecting campaigning? How is GDPR affecting campaigning? What are the new skills needed by campaign teams?
From working with political parties to develop their election campaign programs we understand the mindset behind the politicians within the party management teams. We hope this guide provides some valuable advice for anyone else running for election or considering political party management software.
Political party election campaign budgets have been moving slowly away from traditional campaigning methods to digital means of campaigning. Where, in the past, the majority of campaign budgets might have been spent on leaflets, posters and rallies, in the past 5 years that budget allocation has begun to be assigned to social media advertising, targeted email marketing, and a host of online engagement methods. Campaigns are now more reminiscent of the marketing department of a large company rather than a political party. These trends seem entrenched but we are also seeing increased budget allocations for things like data analytics, better market research, investment in grassroots initiatives, and so on. There is still huge investment in traditional voter outreach methods such as posters (⅓ of all spending in UK in 2017) but European parties are learning from the methods used in US campaigns which tend to push more towards the digital angle. Parties are also investing more in political party software as a means to increase their digital capabilities.
Voter outreach strategies
Voter outreach methods are clear from election spending figures and are roughly divided between social media outreach, social media advertising, face to face canvassing, media engagements and posters, leaflet drops, rallies, local meetings and email marketing. In the past few years we have seen a huge increase in voter engagement through social media though we haven’t seen a big drop off in traditional outreach spending as of yet. In fact, the last 12 months have been difficult for the social media giants like Facebook in terms of their credibility. In the context of elections this may have an impact on how much parties invest in political advertising in the future. The likelihood is that social media advertising is going to be clearly labelled as political advertising which makes it a far less attractive prospect for campaign managers.
At the same time there is a renewed interest in the more granular voter engagement techniques that are common in the US such as grassroots organising and face-to-face engagement either through canvassing or townhall type events.
European parties, despite falling membership figures, still have very strong local networks of constituency teams and members that have huge potential to engage with voters at the local level. This point is not lost on party management teams and they are pushing to coordinate members efforts in voter engagement and data gathering. When done correctly it has the potential to solidify core support for the party and provide the type of quality feedback that can drive party messaging, social media engagement and so on.
Voter persuasion strategies
Voter targeting has become a pejorative term in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica with European political parties fearful that voter manipulation may be used in European elections also. The US has led the way in using extremely detailed voter files to target voters at a granular level. In Europe that tradition is not as strong and voter files are not available in the same way as they are in the US. However, Europeans are interested in applying some of the learnings from the US to their own campaigns and there is a steady stream of political consultancies from the US that come to Europe to instruct in these methods.
Voter persuasion in 2019 in Europe will continue to be done through explaining policy positions and appealing to voters concerns but it will also be done through social media messaging that targets sections of the electorate in the hope of convincing a percentage of those people. Party branding - what the party stands for and where it is positioned on the Left/Right spectrum or within the political traditions of that country - is also hugely important in terms of garnering votes. Looking at the rise of populist parties in Europe in the past three years, much of it has been driven by party branding and positioning in comparison to the more established parties.
In 2019 voter persuausion techniques will include direct outreach through membership networks, door-knocking, on-street engagement and other grassroots activism. Inevitably, social media will play a huge role in creating and disseminating political messages, but there is an unknown effect here as we have seen in recent elections, that social media conversations around elections are not being greatly influenced by the parties themselves but by grassroots activists, pressure groups and social media influencers.
Trying to understand the electorate is a task that many parties struggle with. The data required to build an accurate picture of constituencies and regions so that parties can effectively represent and communicate with those people is daunting. Parties are investing more and more in data experts to help with this process. However, there is still a long way to go before data analytics within the European political industry is either standardised or transparent. Methods of data capture vary from party to party and systems for managing that data and interpreting it are heterogenous.
Data consultancies have appeared across Europe to provide some of this data using aggregated information from previous elections, consumer history, social media profiles and so on. Usually parties develop an election campaign plan from this type of electoral profile and decide which areas or demographic groups to work on. What we are beginning to see among parties though is a desire to build their own databases from membership lists and supporter information, and then use these centralised databases to form the basis of all campaign actions in the future.
It is a truism to say that politics is changing but we need to look at how exactly it is changing. If there is one thing that has been a theme at political party conferences over the past few years it is the changing landscape of digital media and how that affects the skills requirements of campaign staff. As digital ad spend increases there is a need for people within the party infrastructure who are capable of accurately targeting messages and managing large advertising budgets effectively. It may be that this type of work will continue to be let out to consultancies but it is more likely that it will be brought in-house.
Gamification of digital tools continues to be a strong requirement from all parties who struggle to get volunteers and grassroots members to change to digital tools without this type of incentive built in. Examples include social media sharing of activites undertaken during the course of a political campaign, digital rewards like gold stars for highly active members, and so on.
Top skills that are in demand by parties in 2019 include digital advertising specialists, data protection professionals, data analysts and people who have worked on advocacy or grassroots campaigns delivered on social media.
Every political party we speak to raises the issue of the General Data Protection Regulation and how it will affect campaigning. It is hard to do voter outreach on anything but social media without holding voter information and the GDPR makes holding voter information a far more precarious activity than it was in the past. This is because parties have an obligation to maintain voter info securely (cloud based and encrypted) and to have credible systems around data collection that include gaining consent from voters. Parties are split into two camps on this. On the one hand you have parties who are meeting the challenge head-on and using GDPR compliant CRM systems to manage their voter databases. On the other hand you have parties who are avoiding the issue by committing not to hold any personally identifiable data despite the impact on their ability to communicate with voters. (It should be said that many parties still do not understand their obligations under GDPR legislation and may find themselves in breach of the legislation at some point in the next year).
Hopefully this overview has been useful for political parties preparing for European elections. If you have any questions about how to respond to the challenges of campaigning in a digital world talk to us today.