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UK political parties still have alot to learn from the US about digital political campaigning

Joe Trippi relaxing at a Change Congress retreat.

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I was a little skeptical when, just a week after the General Election, US digital campaigning expert Joe Trippi (pictured) told a seminar organised by the Personal Democracy Forum that the UK was a major election behind the US when it came to political parties exploiting social media. His response to those inclined to dismiss the impact of social media on the recent election as being marginal was to argue that the UK is now where the US political scene was after the Presidential election of 2004 and that comparisons with the huge impact the Obama campaign made through social media in 2008 were false. My reaction was partially that he probably had a point but also that you would expect an American to say that they were several years ahead of us.

Forgive my cynicisim.

It has been wiped away by reading Digital Political Campaigns 101, published by ClickZ (part of Incisive Media's US-based interactive marketing division). This is simply essential reading for anyone who wants to start developing a thorough understanding of what integrated digital campaigning is really all about. In just 25 information (and link) packed pages it brings home just why Joe Trippi and others think the UK still has a long way to go to catch up with the US in this area - and there is alot of catching up to do if anything like the impact of the Obama campaign is to be achieved here. Just one statistic brings home the scale of what that campaign achieved: $500m was raised through digital campaigns run by the Obama camp. Interestingly, two-thirds of that came through people clicking a 'donate now' link in a targeted email.

In the UK, the excitement was over newer forms of digital communication such as Facebook (preferred by the Liberal Democrats), Twitter (the main channel for Labour) and video, especially through YouTube (very successfully exploited by the Tories). The successful use of email by the Obama campaign highlights two things that the UK political parties must learn.

The first is that list building (of activists, supporters, influencers) is absolutely crucial and takes a long time. Too much of what all three parties did here was about pushing things out via social media and almost just hoping it would be looked at. The US email campaigns are backed by proper customer relationship management software that enables them to monitor exactly what action people receiving the emails have taken.

The second is that there must always be clear calls to action, both in emails as well as on the main campaign websites. I have spent several hours trawling through various UK political websites and reviewing emails from the main political parties that people have sent on to me and they do not match up to the very clear and unambiguous guidelines set out in Digital Campaigns 101.

One of the most enlightening chapters in the booklet deals with the successful campaign run to get Scott Brown elected as a Republican Senator for Massachusetts following the death of Ted Kennedy. Here, Rob Willington, the new media director for the campaign, sets out step-by-step how they used social media, including the little known Ning social network, to build up a network of activists from almost nothing. A key message that the UK parties need to take from this is that much more emphasis has to be put on getting people to feel they are 'joining' a campaign rather than merely 'following' it, one of the key reasons why the Brown campaign preferred Ning to Facebook.

All the way through this booklet one is struck by the consistent emphasis on taking people on a journey from the initial contact in the virtual world to a commitment to activism in the physical world, whether that be by donating money, attending events or on the street campaigning.

I have no doubt that the next General Election in 2015 will see many of the lessons from the United States absorbed by all the main parties here. They won't go far wrong if they read Digital Campaigns 101.

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