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Campaigning Through Technology: New Zealand and UK Case Studies

Courtesy of the UK Political Marketing Newsletter, Hillwatch has two first-person accounts from opposite sides of the globe on how the Internet is being used by smaller political parties to get out their message and support the activities of party members. The first is from the Communications Director of the ACT New Zealand political party; the second from a Internet Campaign Manager for the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrats.

Better Campaigning Through Technology

Gavin Middleton, ACT New Zealand

ACT New Zealand is a classical liberal party, formed in 1994 by former members of the social-democratic Labour and conservative National parties.  Eight ACT Members of Parliament were elected with 6.2% of the nationwide party vote in the 1996 election.  Through three very different election campaigns, adopting emerging technology has remained a key factor in ACT’s electoral success.

Internet campaigning has particularly proven so effective because ACT’s target voters are themselves enthusiastic technologists.  Their willingness to adopt new technology in turn frees ACT to make use of tools like newsgroups, streaming video, SMS messaging and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) before they hit the mainstream.

Efficient Communication

As in the initial phases of Howard Dean’s campaign in the United States, small political parties in New Zealand quickly spotted the potential of the Internet to distribute targeted information more frequently than their opposition, and to react more quickly on breaking issues.  Harnessing the opportunity that technology provides has allowed newer and smaller parties to compete with larger, more traditional organisations, who were typically entrenched in the status quo and slower to adopt innovations in communication.

Increases in efficiency have represented a major benefit of relying on the Internet to deliver campaign communication, compared to the traditional media.  Email is next to free, a well-built web site requires a minimum of maintenance to stay fresh, and with limited resources, it’s much easier to build momentum behind an online campaign than it is to stretch those resources in a nationwide bricks-and-mortar effort.

The real advantage has been gained when integrating online feedback with a solid back-office database system.  A permission marketing model allows constituents to opt in and receive targeted messages.  Communication is targeted, based on an individual’s gender, age, socio-economic group, geographical location and declared policy areas of interest, among other factors.

ACT’s quarterly party newsletter and constituency updates from Members of Parliament have been reformed into brief weekly emails.  As well as reducing time and labour costs, replacing paper communication with email allows newsletters to be more responsive, focussing on breaking news, current campaigns and opportunities for action which are still relevant to the recipients.  ACT’s 2002 election manifesto was released exclusively through the website, eschewing the need for (and cost of) thousands of printed copies, while quickly becoming one of ACT’s most downloaded files.

Online Campaigning

Between elections, ACT has used a series of issue-based online campaigns to maintain its public profile, while informing the public about proposals for legislation, explaining the immediate and long-term effects, answering questions and promoting further action.  ACT pioneered online collection of submissions to Select Committees, and with purely online petitions not legally acceptable, petition forms on key issues are able to be downloaded and printed.

Conventional direct mail is not only an expensive tool, it takes time to design, print, package, post and deliver.  When funds were needed for an urgent advertising push late in the 2002 election campaign, a fundraising drive for credit card donations was promoted by email, bringing in more money at a higher average donation level than any other single fundraising initiative.

The Internet is also being used to assist the organisers of offline campaigns.  As well as promoting their electorates or regions through the website, local co-ordinators can request electronic lists of local people who have opted in as wanting to get involved with campaigns, or who’ve confirmed their intention to attend local or national events.  Software checks what information a co-ordinator is authorised to receive, and handles these requests automatically, without requiring the intervention of party staff.

One of the benefits of campaigning heavily online is that communication is not only cheap and personal, but also direct - the message can be delivered unfiltered by the prejudices of mainstream media.  In addition to bypassing the media, ACT have implemented technological tools for assisting news outlets.  Small newspapers and radio stations often can’t afford to send reporters to cover events outside of their immediate geographical area, but now they have the choice of watching online video (either live or on-demand) or receiving audio files by email.  Just as small political parties have found speed and flexibility of technology, small media outlets are able to receive the same information and level of service as any of the global media giants.

Future Focussed

Offline channels haven’t been ignored in favour of a virtual broadside - over a million postal letters are still sent from ACT’s Parliamentary Office each year - but snail mail is focussed on making initial contact with voters, rather than the mundane daily business of politics.  Each letter emphasises the Internet as a source of further information, and the act.org.nz web address is given the same prominence as the party logo, emblazoned everywhere from the side of yellow campaign buses to the backdrops of public meetings.

ACT delivers over five million electronic communications a year – two messages for every registered voter.  Technology has been used to make campaigns flexible, effective and efficient, with rapid distribution of relevant material.  By being strong believers in innovation, a handful of political rebels won a place in parliament, outpacing the larger, more established parties.

ACT’s success proves the benefits of distributing information wider, at a faster rate, and at a fraction of the cost – better campaigning, through technology.

Gavin Middleton is the ACT’s Communication Manager.  ACT can be contacted at http://www.act.org.nz/


Winning Brent East: Did the Internet Matter?

Mark Pack, Liberal Democrats

When Sarah Teather won the Brent East Parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats in the by-election on September 18th 2003, it was one of the party’s most dramatic election victories.

A previously rock-solid Labour seat – former Parliamentary seat of London Mayor Ken Livingstone when he was an MP – became a Liberal Democrat gain with a swing of 29%.

Although the Liberal Democrats started using email extensively back in the Internet’s early days of the 1990s, it was the Romsey by-election in 2000 which first saw a concerted approach to using the Internet to win public elections beyond simply using email as a convenient internal communications tool.

The Romsey by-election both saw a website for the public and the use of email lists for mobilising volunteers to go and help in the constituency. The Brent East by-election was the first major opportunity to revisit the potential of the Internet in a large by-election campaign after three years in which the Internet had continued to grow in importance, hype and penetration.

So how did the Internet shape up? In summary – it was an effective tool for mobilising volunteers and improving internal organisation but is still of only limited effect in reaching out to floating voters. Given the apparently similar lessons from Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination, this divergence between the internal and external impacts of the Internet may well soon become the received wisdom.

In Brent East, what it meant was that regular emails to party members and helpers around the country were used to encourage people to come and help. Email made it easy to provide information cheaply and quickly and allowed little flourishes such as providing links to online maps to make it easy for people to work out where to go. The ease of responding to emails also meant it was easier to engage in conversation with people who might need a little extra persuasion or information to come. If they had been posted information, they might not have got round to replying with questions (e.g. “are we serious about winning – do you really need my help?”) but with email the reply button is always just to hand.

Many of these emails replaced what would have been done by post or phone in the past. This meant the impact of the Internet was evolutionary rather than revolutionary – doing similar things as before, but cheaper, quicker and with more impact. Particularly striking was the impact on the organisation of volunteer telephone canvassers, which was done almost completely over the Internet. Whilst in the past nearly everything had been done by post, with some faxing and very little email, in Brent it was nearly all email, some faxing and very little post.

Fundraising over the Internet was also significant, with email-based appeals raising around 25% of the by-election budget. There was some displacement effect from posted appeals, but email appeals proved their worth in allowing immediate needs for extra cash to be quickly turned into appeals and responses.

Emails were also used to communicate with voters who opted in to receiving them. Again, the particular benefit of email was its speed – such as in reminding people just before the deadline for postal votes that they could still apply for one. Some casework came in by email, and it was also solicited through the website (see below). The most convenient aspect of this was the ability to easily forward on the casework to the relevant official or department for action.

The public website, http://www.sarahteather.org.uk/ (still available, though updated regularly since the election) had a three-fold purpose. First, the existence of a frequently updated and professional website both provided information to journalists doing their background research before visiting the constituency. By its very existence it also helped to reinforce the message that this was a by-election campaign the Liberal Democrats were serious about winning.

Second, it provided a similar function for members thinking about coming to help or donating. And thirdly, it provided a source of information for voters in the constituency.

As with email though, the number of floating voters interacted with was relatively small compared to the number of votes needed to be swung to win the election.

The number of hits on the website continued a pattern seen in previous elections with the peak of traffic being on the day after polling day. This poses an interesting question for academics looking at political parties and their use of the Internet. Such studies need an implicit or explicit model of what information people are after by which to judge the Internet performance of political parties.

But how well do any of these models explain this consistent pattern of a peak of traffic just after the election? If these models cannot explain this pattern easily, then how suitable are they to use in evaluating the use of the Internet?

It also raises questions about what criteria should be used to rate party websites – for example, speed of updating after polling day is rarely, if ever, used.

The other question for academics raised by the Liberal Democrats’ experience in Brent East and similar campaigns is that of the relative importance of email and the web. Most academic studies have concentrated on the web, understandably so as it is more amenable to outside inspection – particularly when compared with internal member-only emails. Yet, if the choice had had to be made between having email or having a website, the former would have been picked. Although websites get the greater study, email would be harder for us to live without.

Mark Pack works in the Liberal Democrats Campaigns & Elections department and was the party’s Internet Campaign Manager for the 2001 General Election.

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