As the June deadline for a general election in the U.K. edges closer, the Conservative Party is turning to digital media to help dust down its image, and engage more effectively with younger, digital-savvy voters. Campaigning is now officially underway, and the party is hoping its dedicated in-house digital team and selection of agency partners will help it capitalize on opportunities to woo voters in the digital sphere.
Since its election defeat in the 2005, the party has appointed an 8-strong in-house digital team with staff dedicated to areas including social media, search engine optimization, online video production, digital advertising and voter engagement.
"Digital has played a major role in our campaigning and public engagement for many years, and is set to become even more central as the election nears," commented Jeremy Hunt MP, shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport.
Alongside its own staff, the party has also enlisted the help of a number of agency partners, including Lost Boys International (LBi) as a lead digital partner. In September, LBi launched an online network dubbed MyConservatives.com, designed to provide supporters with tools to help them raise funds and campaign for the candidates and issues that concern them. It also aids the party with its paid search and display ad efforts.
Despite the fact digital investment is relatively minimal in comparison with other aspects of the campaign, LBi Managing Director Anil Pillai (pictured above) is encouraged by the attitude the party has adopted towards digital media. Describing the digital budget as "reasonably significant," he added that it "continues to move in the right direction." According to Pillai, the party now perceives digital as an ideal channel to help reinvigorate its image, re-engage with younger voters, and help woo "soft tories" and floating voters.
"It's not mainstream politics for them yet, but they're watching the space very closely," said Pillai. Conservative Party Leader David Cameron "understands he needs younger people around him to reinvigorate the party and the brand," he continued, in reference to the in-house staff with which his agency has been working.
LBi (pictured below) is based in London's borough of Tower Hamlets, an area historically dominated by Labour voters. Pillai insists the agency has no political sympathies with the Conservative Party itself, describing the relationship instead as "a meeting of minds." He suggests the account was primarily an opportunity for the agency to "further promote digital within organizations."
Search, Social and Donating Facebook Status
The Conservative party re-launched its main site in 2008, focusing heavily on search engine-friendly design and build, and investing subsequent time and effort in populating it with optimized content. To help drive further traffic, the party also invests substantially in paid search advertising, focusing budget on keywords relating to central issues and policies, and often in reaction to current political events.
According to Hunt, the party views social media as a key platform to engage with party members and supporters, as well as reaching floating, or perhaps first-time voters. "Voters who want to understand our policies and find their local candidates use our main Web site, Conservatives.com. Twitter and Facebook...are also crucial in engaging with new supporters, seeding video content, and recruiting new activists," he said.
The party also makes use of targeted Facebook ads to help drive additional traffic to its page, where it promotes content from its main site and blogs, including posts from prominent MPs and a number of webcasts with Cameron. In June, the party launched an application for the social network that allows users to donate their status updates, effectively becoming mouthpieces for the party.
Hunt highlighted the benefits of digital networks in empowering existing supporters and party members to campaign more effectively and easily. The MyConservatives.com site lets people join local or issue-based campaign teams, call voters, buy tickets for fundraising events, register to canvass door-to-door, sign petitions, organize letter-writing campaigns, and donate money to specific causes. "Almost 10,000 people have already signed up since launch and it is helping to recruit and mobilize a new generation of supporters to the Conservative Party," he said.
The Obama Impact
Pillai suggested U.K. parties can learn a number of lessons from the U.S. presidential election of 2008. He makes no bones about the influence and inspiration taken from Obama's digital activity last year, describing much of his agency's work for the Conservatives as a "post-rationalization" of that campaign. "We watched the Obama campaign very closely. For the Conservative Party the politics is different, but there's a similar appetite for innovation. We saw an opportunity to be part of that," he said.
Alongside the Conservatives, LBi has worked with a range of other non-profit and public sector organizations including charities such as Oxfam and the Red Cross. The agency also counts a number of major global brands among its client base including Sony's Playstation, Unilever, and BT.
Though he calls political campaigning "slightly richer as it's about how we all live," Pillai continued, "Let's be under no illusion, the party is still selling something, and what we learn from this campaign will have implications for our work with other clients."
Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.