Was it really a digital election?

As the country returns from a trip to the polling stations and election fever fizzes out, how much impact has digital really had on helping to shape the final votes? A straw poll in my office says no, but digital marketers say yes. Which is it?

This election was originally largely hailed as the digital election. The mainstream use of social media and the Internet at large meant MPs had more ways than ever to lobby for your vote.

In many ways they did this. All three of the main parties had special campaign websites, which were frequently updated. At one point or another, they have all used YouTube to post updates. Personal messages have been posted on Facebook and MPs have used Twitter to convey the personal touch of life on the campaign trail (in some cases going too far!)

The media also got involved. National newspapers have been live-blogging throughout the month long process, and all three-television debates were streamed online with forums allowing voters to comment. YouTube also had its own debate and Google and Twitter have dedicated space to show the search trends relating to the elections.

Facebook had a page called Democracy UK. It had 1,606,954 page views throughout April and 168,000 members signing up. It is now tracking how many people from its site voted, which will perhaps be a telling number.

A YouGov online survey commissioned by Orange revealed that over half (57%) of adults surveyed online have read or received information about the election online during the course of the campaign.

According to the research, the digital election seems to have had the most impact on the 18-24 year old age group with nearly a quarter (24%) of those online actively engaged and commenting on the general election through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Online marketers, who were hoping that the election would show the full strength of digital marketing, say that the use of these sites for electoral purposes has served its purpose of boosting awareness of the online marketing industry and its full potential.

But, the jury’s out on how much influence it actually had on the overall outcome of the election. Critics have pointed out to me that the TV debates have actually overshadowed the online elements, with viewers judging politicians based on how they answer and their personality when addressing the country in person – something online can’t always offer.

Others have noted how the social side of the industry, which was a core component of President Obama’s election in the US, has not had the same potency in the UK. Where Obama took time to answer questions on key policy issues and appease undecided voters, the UK politicians have avoided answering core questions directly and left little motivation for full-blown digital democracy.

It seems that even though some progress has been made in turning the electoral system digital in the UK, there is still some way to go before digital will really make a difference. Just like the politicians themselves, it’s the substance that’s important, not the pretty looks.

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