Will this be the Twitter election? UK political parties look for Obama lessons

Just how important is social media going to be in the forthcoming General Election campaign? After the huge excitement generated by the Obama campaign's use of social media during his successful campaign in 2008 all three main parties in the UK have been gearing up to exploit these new channels - and all three have proved very keen to talk about what they are doing.
Just this week there has been a debate at the Frontline Club and a session at the Search Engine Strategies London conference. I attended the latter as SES is part of the Incisive Media stable.
Speaking at the SES session were Mark Hanson from the Labour Party, Rishi Saha from the Conservatives and Mark Pack from Mandate Communications, who until recently worked for the Liberal Democrats.
There was a remarkable degree of consensus among the three of them and with the Frontline Club debate the previous evening, best summed up as cautious in terms of the claims being made for the likely impact of social media. However, the parties are putting alot of resources into it. Labour have four people dedicated to digital campaigning and the Conservatives nine. The Lib Dems predictably have a more limited national resource and have put the emphasis on local campaigning instead.
They all agreed that the biggest impact of the Obama campaign has been to get them a seat at the top table. Whereas before Obama party bosses might have been tempted to treat social media as a sideshow, now it is a central ingredient in their communications strategies.
Rishi Saha was by far the most bullish, promoting David Cameron and George Osborne as being web savvy and comfortable with new media, taking a big swipe at Gordon Brown's much-derided YouTube video at the height of the expenses scandal, drawing a stoney look from Mark Hanson but no response. The WebCameron project was hailed by Saha as an example of the ease with which the Tory leadership has embraced new media in contrast to Blair and Brown and even Hanson found himself acknowledging its success. The key tools for Labour so far have been Twitter which they like because of its immediacy and directness and also the blogsphere where they have over 100 key Labour supporting bloggers donating advertising space on their blogs.
The Tories have been quick to promote policy initiatives and reach out to potential supporters using new media in contrast to Labour where the emphasis seems to have been in communicating with its existing supporters more effectively. In this respect their new media strategies are in line with their overall approaches to the forthcoming election and their respective priorities. For Labour it is about maintaining its current support and enthusing it about the prospect of another Labour government while the Tories have to attract huge numbers of new supporters if they are to have any chance of winning the election.
The Liberal Democrats have focussed on a local strategy, particularly using Facebook, where the chance to build relationships with smaller groups of local electors appeals to them.
One feature on which they all agreed was the huge contrast with the American experience where social media's main influence was in fundraising with 99% of the money raised online going on TV advertising. In the UK, social media so far has been more about persuasion.
Whatever impact social media has in the UK election is likely to to be overshadowed by the new US-style leadership debates - this was certainly the feeling at the Frontline club. These are the key novelty and will grab alot of media and public attention. Social media will play a supporting role in this as the key commentators use it to form instant opinions on how the contestants have performed which will, in turn, shape public perceptions.
Back at SES, Mark Pack also said that we should expect the unexpected. There will almost certainly be a key 'cock-up' moment at some time during the campaign that will be caught on video and which will become huge on the internet - all the parties will be hoping that it isn't their leaders who become top ranked hits on You Tube for the wrong reasons.
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