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Don't go for Sexy: Why developing your digital based on what’s hot is a sure bet to lose

It’s early 2019. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publishes an Instagram story about cooking. The world and digital organising community goes mad. Everyone, everywhere, from all sides of the political spectrum wants to emulate this sensation and build the phenomenon of attracting supporters through non-political, relaxed, social media posts which paint the candidate in a human, down-to-earth light. Campaigns from the US to France to the UK sound the alarm bell. Campaign directors rush to their social media experts. ‘Have you seen AOC’s Instagram? That’s *exactly* what we need to be doing. Our candidate is dry - first thing tomorrow, teach them how to use Instagram and make them film themselves making pancakes with their kids.

Of course, the above is anecdotal - but it’s a symptomatic scene of the past few years of digital organising. New technologies from Instagram, to Twitter, to Tik Tok have shaken up traditional campaigning methods. The organising world has been invigorated thanks to these new ways of harnessing and attracting supporters. Campaigns are forced to think outside the box. Traditional methods don’t ‘do’ anymore, and the world of organising has become a competitive place, where every candidate has to work hard and innovatively to stay ahead of the curve and maintain their appeal. However, there has been a considerable downside from campaigns constantly thinking of the ‘next sexy thing with technology’ to do rather than remembering the holistic digital picture of their campaigns. Think of it like your latest diet fad from a fashion magazine. ‘Caveman diet’, ‘Chardonnay and coffee’, ‘eggs and grapefruit’ - they sound great (some of them) and promise quick weight loss results, but none of these diets are a sustainable means of survival, and you’re sure to have more health issues once the diet is over. It’s the same with digital. More specifically, the notion that ‘new and funky’ means ‘better’ has resulted in numerous flash in the pan or, if we are to use the millennial lingo, cringe-inducing campaigns which would have been better off pursuing a broader digital strategy rather than simply setting up a new Instagram account.

We won’t deny it's fun to go after the new sexy thing that everyone is trying. But the problem here is that too often campaigns prioritise these techniques while leaving other key, more efficient and proven methods with established best practices to the wayside. And we’ve seen more than once candidates and parties with great ideas lose exactly because of this despite having the better and more popular ideas. 

Below are three key tips on harnessing new technologies as a part of a holistic digital strategy to make sure that your next digital organising move doesn’t fizzle out and instead has a long-lasting effect on your campaign and your supporters.

1. Don’t make rash decisions and dedicate time and resources to strategies without thinking about the bigger picture

Don’t burn money you don’t have on strategies that don’t work. Few movements and candidates are lucky enough to have unlimited resources or unlimited spending caps (much of Europe, like the UK for example, doesn’t have this luxury, where campaign resources are strictly limited by electoral law). 

Therefore, every test of a new sexy piece of technology drains precious time and resources that could better be invested in a wider strategy that includes organising already existing supporters and volunteers, who often suffer from lack of targeted communication, lack of consistent representation, and dwindling engagement which leads them feeling disillusioned with the movement. An example is Bernie Sanders’ waning support from what was a digitally agile, hugely enthusiastic community to one that is no longer sure of the policy they are supporting. While many of these political disenchantments are a direct consequence of policy changes, the role of digital, which has often propelled these candidates quickly and painlessly into the political stratosphere (often too quickly before a solid strategy has been put into place) is not then effectively used to maintain the existing supporter base. For this reason, having an agile digital strategy but also a (financially) sustainable holistic digital strategy is absolutely crucial for long-term success. It’s also important to remember that just because one digital strategy works for one candidate/movement, does not mean that it will work for you. While Wendy’s Twitter account has made a sensational splash on social media, leading to them becoming ‘meme-material’ and increasing their revenue, the same sharpness and tough approach on social media proved to be catastrophic for the reputation of an organisation such as PETA which saw its supporters dwindle rather than get behind their cause with more vigour. Campaigning these days still remains more of an analogue endeavour and there is plenty of digital low-hanging fruit such as a holistic email strategy, effective websites, and use of social media which any campaign can effectively explore. However, this needs to go hand in hand with a carefully crafted message, targeted communication with supporters which leads on relationships, and razor-sharp digital strategy with clearly defined KPIs. Email particularly has shown itself to be a strong strategy which should spearhead any digital strategy - it sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how many organisations are missing out on the potential and power of a good, streamlined email campaign. Getting those basics in place is an important foundation - much more so than getting lured by the excitement of posting memes on Instagram.

2. Don’t make the candidate ‘down with the kids’ if they’re not. An Instagram filter will not change a person and may only make you seem insincere.

Seeing social media and ‘hip’ new technologies such as Snapchat as a silver bullet that will make any candidate and any movement ‘sexy’ and attractive to a younger generation in a bid to increase youth engagement with your cause is usually a dead end. From misplaced parody YouTube videos to failed memes, certain politicians have struggled to keep up with the times and make themselves cool, cutting edge, and effective campaigners. It’s a sad reflection of the current state of digital organising that one of the most effective candidates out there in this regard is Donald Trump. Part of Trump’s success can be attributed his razor-sharp focus on one digital strategy which he has been honing over the past few years.

Just don't.

While Democrats sort through 20 candidates, each trying their luck in different means of reaching the electorate, Donald Trump (as distasteful as he is) has been perfecting his Twitter strategy, reaching tens of millions with every outburst. The key takeaway here isn’t to be like Donald Trump - rather, it’s to pick one type of core strategy and one core platform, and absolutely perfect the strategy there, maintaining it not just for a few months when you need the votes, but for the long-haul, with a holistic plan. A/b testing technology and digital is great, but wasteful when not embedded in a broader digital campaign thrust. Prioritising SEO, a comprehensive email strategy, and an established and believable persona on social media are some ways in which this can be achieved, and when run hand in hand, can make individual digital strategies within one campaign far more effective. In terms of metrics to determine whether your strategy is effective or not (it’s crucial to ‘measure success’ in these cases to make sure you’re not throwing money out of the window on sexy digital trials which lead nowhere), we can look to digital marketing for inspiration. Increased number of unique website visitors, conversion rate of supporters to volunteers, ROI in terms of average donation size per donor are all examples of ways in which we can determine the success of a given digital experiment, and enables us to quickly abandon it if not in congruence with the rest of the digital strategy. This in itself will increase the veracity of the candidate and bring a degree of constancy to the campaign.

3. Make sure you’re ethical and compliant with all data legislation

New platforms like WhatsApp, Tik Tok, and Snapchat are hugely attractive options for bringing in new groups of supporters and engaging with them in innovative ways. WhatsApp, while used to great effect by some organisations such as the Delhi Police to build a digital community of what is essentially neighbourhood watch for women’s safety, struggles to take hold in Europe where the encrypted nature of the platform and especially the recent GDPR legislation and the ‘right to be forgotten’ makes it a very difficult technology to use at scale. There have even been investigations by electoral commissions and looming court cases triggered by WhatsApp itself about the unlawful/legally suspicious use of WhatsApp as a campaigning/business marketing platform. Ensuring that your digital strategy is compliant with the legal but also cultural nuances of the country you’re campaigning in is crucial for it being a success; and emulating digital strategies from across the world needs to be considered in the legal and anthropological framework of your target audience. For example, if a UK political party wants to use WhatsApp to mobilise grassroots supporters, its non-EU expat supporters will be under different digital jurisdiction and therefore need to be approached with a nuanced strategy. Of course, one should also consider any ethical implications. Just because its legal doesn’t mean its right to do. For new technologies extra vetting should be applied to make sure you won’t be doing something that goes against the ethics we should all be practicing in politics. 

Going back to AOC, she’s been hugely successful in strategically using Twitter and Instagram as a part of her multifaceted approach to drive engagement. Her ‘organising over messaging’ mentality is the trick that so many people who try to emulate her don’t quite get right. Take, for example, a recent Twitter post in which she shared the launch of beautiful Green New Deal posters (that make a historical reference to the original New Deal posters) and offered them, along with free school supplies, as a free giveaway at a community event. The point of her tweet isn’t simply to send a message or get “likes”, but rather to mobilise around a policy issue that she knows is important to constituents, connect with them as their representative by enticing them to come out to an event, and, through that, gain better awareness of issues that affect them. 

In a nutshell, digital strategy is a double edged sword that can be both the rise and fall of your campaign. When treated like a series of silver bullets that replace a clear message, a credible candidate, strong relationships with your supporters, or targeted community engagement, it will be doomed to fail -- and even more so when it consists of a disjointed mosaic of trial and error of new technologies for the sake of new technologies. A great way to get this right is understanding your digital within a broader context and auditing your existing strategies and building on them to ensure there’s scalability. From our years of work around the world, we know building political movements with digital isn’t about just trying the new exciting thing. An effective digital strategy that builds real relationships with supporters and grows movements at its core must be multi-faceted and holistic in its approach. But with so many digital technologies and potential approaches it’s often hard to tell what is of actual value to invest in, and even harder to know what is most effective in an area of rapid innovation.

This is why we now offer a digital audit for progressive parties and organisations. With this service we apply our broad-based digital knowledge to help leadership of parties, organisations, and campaigns know where they stand, what methods are being applied in accordance with best practices and what opportunities are being missed. Remember: when paired with an effective website, strong email programme, a human touch with your supporters, and long-term digital strategy, it can propel anyone and any organisation to stratospheric success. It’s time progressives start winning again worldwide. And we are here to help.

For more information on how to craft a holistic digital strategy, please contact us