I spent last Friday night at a Sydney Writer’s Festival event featuring Joe Rospars, Barack Obama’s Chief Digital Strategist, called Crafting the Message. The discussion, which was moderated by the ABC’s Leigh Sales, was all about how election campaigns are built and run.
Joining him onstage was Neil Lawrence, the ECD of STW, and Grahame Morris, a former chief of staff for John Howard and longtime Liberal political figure.
Obviously Australian and US politics have some big differences, namely when it comes to compulsory voting. But ultimately, you are selling a product. And what struck me the most from the discussion was the great generational divide that seems to exist in understanding the audience.
Joe talked smartly about things like data mining, content creation and rich audience profiles – all hallmarks of marketing in the digital age.
By and large, Grahame and Neil spoke about slogans on TV ads (Neil most famously was responsible for Kevin Rudd’s 2007 campaign), and trying to distill what a candidate was about down to something that fit in that space.
When asked what, if anything, they could learn from Joe and the experiences he had, they were quick to point out that the things they believe were done well were almost irrelevant in Australia because we don’t need to expend energy during a campaign on fundraising or convincing people to go to the polls.
It felt like an incredibly short sighted point of view, shared by two reasonably influential image makers in Australian politics, that the use of digital technology could not do anything for the purposes of conveying different messages to different audience. They believed that direct mail and mass market TV commercials covered their needs.
By comparison, the US campaign created around 4,000 pieces of video content alone to reach different audiences around the country.
The reality is that we generate a lot of data. In fact, we produce more of it than ever before. New platforms have given us a voice to express approval and disapproval, outrage and happiness and pretty much every other emotion.
While politics is one of those things that, alongside religion you try and steer clear of, social media has given us a place to have the discussions on a wider basis not only with our friends, but strangers.
We talk about issues in depth, we share content about things that matter to us, and we debate it amongst each other. For politics, and a party looking to understand what the public wants, you have a focus group like no other.
While the parties use these social platforms to push their messages out, and many politicians are “on Twitter”, if the discussion at the Writer’s Festival is anything to go by, there has been very little thought of leveraging the goldmine of opinions and feedback to truly understand what is really important, or understand the effectiveness of the message they think we want to hear.
It is a generational divide – the advances in the last ten years of communications tech has probably been the most rapid in the last half a century.
Brian Solis talks about Digital Darwinism – when technology and society are evolving faster than the ability of an organisation to adapt, and in a lot of ways we think of this through the lens of traditional business models.
But is Australian politics suffering from the same affliction? When I hear discussions like this that continue to talk about the effectiveness of techniques that are 30 years old, I think so.
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