Early on in the 2015 General Election cycle, the Tories publicised a MyConservatives revamp, but completely dropped it (very quietly). They have tried also to bury evidence of WebCameron and its output altogether. This raises the question of whether internet innovation in politics is primarily a tool for opposition parties, rather than parties in government. The jury is still out on that and it remains a question requiring deeper analysis over time. The advent of coalition politics at Westminster has complicated this question further with the definition of the government party(ies) and opposition party(ies) being rather more cloudy than before.
However, further to my recent book: ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet: Change, Culture and Cyber Toryism’ (Ridge-Newman 2014) one question I have been asked, and feel able to shed some light on, is how the 2010 General Election e-campaign (#GE2010) compares to that in 2015 (#GE2015).
Firstly, the use of social media seems to have become more normalised as (1) a standard way of organising campaign events; and (2) having a shop front for local campaigns. Some candidates have begun investing their campaign funds in targeted Facebook advertising.
Candidates are reporting that this has helped to (1) raise their profile in their constituency campaigns; and (2) improve interactivity with potential constituents. This is something that wasn't being done so much in 2010.
Moreover, candidates seem more generally aware of the role of social media in their campaigns, especially Facebook and Twitter. In #GE2010, these practices were evolving through a learning and copying culture at the grassroots. Therefore, it is now less evolutionary in its user culture and more standardised in terms of practice. In a democracy and media sense, the use of Facebook and Twitter has now reached a maturity that has facilitated and shaped the ways in which the campaigns are informed and mediated.
The rise of the populist parties is significant in #GE2015. Their impact was more muted and less pronounced in #GE2010. Ukip in particular, but also parties like the BNP and EDL, appear to be targeting Tories on Facebook, friending them and then linking them to their online propaganda, which tends to be highly visual and low on text. EDL social media participants tend to use symbols of Englishness, e.g. St George and the flag. Ukip are decorating their social media pages with purple and gold branding with often prominent displays (profile and cover photos) of the pound sign | ‘£’ and images of the Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
The Conservatives, Labour and Ukip have used an inbound marketing technique, which, to date, has been more commonly associated with marketing practices in the commercial sectors. In order to gain access to these parties’ main websites, the individual is presented with a landing page. At first glance, it would appear that in order to gain access one should submit an email address and other personal data, like, for example, a postcode. Armed with this data, the parties are likely to directly target and market the individual in the run-up to the election using the submitted personal details (primarily an email address); and the parties’ internal CRM systems and market automation tools (MATs), like, for example, Marketo and HubSpot. The hyperlinks allowing the individual to bypass this step is discreet and hidden. However, with a bit of searching it is possible to access these websites without providing personal data.
These parties have taken a significant step forward in their approaches towards more standardised commercial marketing practices. In comparison, it would appear that the BNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and SNP have either not considered/been in a position to use this technique or deemed it to be unhelpful to their campaign efforts.
At present, the sense that I get is that #GE2010 was more experimental and organic, but in #GE2015 there seems a greater confidence across the parties to use online techniques in more aggressive and targeted ways, with fewer attempts at gimmickry.
The Tories have extensively expanded their use of email. It is more personalised and integrated with a range of other online campaign mechanisms for telephone canvassing and signing up to campaigns.
But it raises the question about digital overload. How are ordinary members and activists responding to this approach?
Votesource is an new cloud-based and networked database, commissioned and implemented by CCHQ; and developed by the people who built Merlin and Blue Chip (the two technological predecessors to Votesource). However, it was rolled-out very late in the day (two months before the election). There have been user interface issues, including crashing, poor user connectivity and slowness in inputting and accessing data. Many of the aging people in the party have found it challenging to adapt to, especially with a lack of effective training.
Technology is only as good as the capabilities of the people who design it and the people who use it. As in #GE2010, there appears to be still a significant technological and age divide in the Tory Party. The more techno-savvy individuals are young, but they are largely used for their muscle on the ground to deliver leaflets etc.
Although Votesource, as a cloud-based version of Merlin, is a technological step forward in terms of remote access, the party is poorly organised when it comes to implementing their databases in good time and training users to interface with them effectively.
Therefore, the activists and members who are expected to use the technology, tend to get irritated and demotivated. I have called this a latent culture of grumpiness in local Conservative Associations, which appears to stem from imposed and poorly organised initiatives by the central party. This grumpiness has become a constituent feature of the Cyber Toryism of #GE2015. #GE2010 Cyber Toryism was much more rooted in technological enthusiasm and innovation at both the top and bottom of the Conservative Party.