Certain influential people with addresses in SW1 took the Putnam thesis to heart. With the result that activating the committed supporter base through direct marketing became part of the new general election playbook for all parties.
As someone who worked for one of the agencies involved at the time, I’m happy to admit that the tactics aren’t exactly rocket science. There’s the creation of false jeopardy to combat inertia. (No real need this time round, as there’s more than enough of the real kind of jeopardy around to keep everyone happy.) And then there’s the use of crude segmentation to motivate different portions of the base by pointing the most appealing party spokesperson in their direction. A technique which I seem to recall involved a data tool known as the Bambi/Thumper Switch.
All this now seems almost whimsically primitive. The electronic world which today’s voters inhabit is itself a warren of vibrant and interlinked communities, defined not by geography but by interest and affiliation. It all makes Putnam’s rigidly unvirtual definition of community look decidedly pre-Obama.
Truth to tell, I’m a little sceptical about the power of social media to win round the wavering and the unconverted. I tend towards Ivan Clark’s analysis (in a recent blog post) which questions whether the bonds of Facebook friendship are really strong enough to convince you of a party’s line on immigration or public sector spending. I just don’t think political marketers in the UK have yet cracked the content code that is the key to broader social media success. WebCameron is a mildly good pun, and Eric Pickles is quite a funny man, but neither of these phenomena has yet made it onto my YouTube favourites list.
However, when it comes to motivating the committed, social media may be the best thing since Tammany Hall. And if my hunch is correct, motivating the committed is how this election will be won. We’ll just have to wait and see.