Race to No 10 will pit media platforms against one another

Media platforms that prove most useful to politicians in the election campaign can expect a long-term boost in their fortunes

With the results of this week’s Budget now out of the way, it seems more likely than ever that 6 May is now inked in as the date for the General Election. Indeed, the bookies have stopped taking bets that it will be held then.

Aside from the minor issue of which party will assume power, one other election contest for marketers will be between media platforms. Not only is this the first closely contested election in the 18 years since 1992, but it’s the first election campaign that has been fought against such a wide-ranging digital backdrop. Social networks, blogs and online fundraising are now part of the political landscape alongside party political broadcasts, newspaper articles and direct mail. The implications on channel usage and platform success are likely to stretch well beyond the short three weeks of an election campaign.

So, how will the main candidates fare?

On budgets, it’s clear that online fundraising has not taken off in the UK. Many of us shop online occasionally (but not regularly). We might donate to sponsored runs on justgiving.com, but there’s been no build-up of political fundraising online to compare with the scale of Barack Obama’s scintillating US campaign journey from the primaries to the presidency.

Instead of the digital election, I think direct marketing will come of age. This will be an election fought street by street, voter by voter in the key marginal constituencies. The full firepower of the relationship marketer’s armoury will be aimed at converting a few floating voters from indifference to commitment.

Indeed, old-style political donations have dominated the pre-election news coverage of the last few weeks. Mega-union Unite has been funding Labour while Lord Ashcroft has been paying some of his fortune into Tory coffers, if not to the UK taxman. Despite this opacity of party funding, neither has a media war chest garnered from new media sources. It seems as though we’re not quite ready to shop for our politics online.

But on platform choice, things are looking somewhat different.

Two stalwarts of traditional political campaigning – outdoor and newspapers – look as though they’ll be less important to me.

Outdoor has always had a curious role in UK elections. In practice, total outdoor media space booked is often quite limited – but political parties have built huge PR on the back of small-scale poster unveilings and the outdoor sector has enhanced its own profile as a result. Now, social media can amplify the message. It can also edit the content. This means that nowadays a poster campaign is unusually risky.

Just look at what has happened to the Tories’ lamentable “I’ve never voted Tory before” campaign. It spawned a host of online spoofs, with unflattering additions and explanations.

That said, outdoor can still work with a compelling single-minded proposition. Like all media, it’s only as good as the creative. All of us would have bought the “Labour isn’t working” slogan from the Saatchi & Saatchi poster with the dole queue visual. I’d hope no readers of Marketing Week would ever buy (or sell) a campaign idea for your brand that starts by articulating the headline thought “I’ve never bought the brand…But”. Persuasive selling starts with articulation of a benefit.

For newspapers, the challenge is to retain their historic pre-eminence in reporting and analysis against the full panoply of social media that now compete with them. It feels like a losing battle. Political campaigns are fast-moving, evolving dynamically in real time and this will lend itself to the instant commentary of blogs, social media and the digital networks.

Just as the political coverage of Radio 4’s Today programme sets up the political agenda in real time at the start of each day, my instinct is that the breaking news online and across the networks will shape media coverage later during each campaign day. The digital age will not wait impatiently for each morning’s newspaper coverage of events that happened the day before and which have already been discussed in other media. Of course, the political leaders and commentary will be important but there’s not the same monopoly on political writing and reporting the newspapers delivered in 1992. This time around, it won’t be The Sun wot wins it!

For all that, I doubt social media will shape and define the election completely. While the Twittering classes will analyse each nuance in the campaigns, it seems fair to assume that doorstep canvassing on a wet evening in Sunderland will be more about what’s not working locally rather than who’s networking globally.

Instead of the digital election, I think direct marketing and customer relationship management-style marketing will come of age. This will be an election fought street by street, voter by voter in the key marginal constituencies – with address lists, voter lists, social mapping, behavioural targeting and door-to-door canvassing all lined up as the full firepower of the relationship marketer’s armoury is turned on converting a few floating voters from indifference to commitment.

And alongside that direct consumer contact, one fundamental truth will remain: the power of big event television. The thought of three party leaders in suits discussing foreign affairs may not set the programmers’ hearts racing, but there’s no doubt the head-to-head election debates will be big-event TV as much as all the other TV talent shows.

It will transform electioneering on TV from dull party political broadcasts to intense live campaigning. Perhaps next time around we really will be able to text and phone-in our votes to Simon Cowell, who can then crown the winner live.

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