As we are all keenly aware this year’s general election is a watershed for social media and the UK’s political process. The last general election was held when Youtube was a mere 3 months old and Twitter hadn’t even been launched. A year on from observing Obama’s successful campaign in the American presidential election British MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates are keen to get in on the action.
2009 was the year of Twitter; Labour appointed Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy as its resident Twitter Tsar while the website Tweetminister was launched to keep the corridors of Whitehall, journalists and the public up to date with the latest tweets from MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates (PPC’s). Even David Cameron felt it necessary to make this now (in)famous etymological comparison.
However a much larger social network and community building platform is Facebook, and with over 23million UK users I’d argue it’s a much more effective campaigning tool for political parties ahead of the next election. But how can parties make the most out of Facebook? And more specifically, what’s the answer to the eternal question: Fan Pages or Groups?
A quick search for UK political Fan Pages comes up with Boris Johnson, George Galloway and Dave Cameron as the top three most popular (i.e. have the most fans). Add to that heady mix BNP leader Nick Griffin and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and you have the top five.
All these people benefit from one unifying factor: they offer fans the cult of personality. Their brand and image can be held as a key indicator of who they are and what makes people identify with them. As a result, fans will revisit their Pages, interact with other fans sharing a like-minded passion, read and interact with their idol’s content and even submit their own. The key thing here is that the established offline identity-forming brand of iconic or (in)famous politicians is being reflected online.
However, while political icons may offer fans the cult of personality, the vast majority of political parties, politicians and PPCs don’t have this established social capital. In fact, to help campaign for votes at the next election, political parties, MPs and PPCs are going to have to succeed at building and mobilising vibrant communities of local supporters as well as starting and joining hyperlocal conversations with electorate to win on polling day. To achieve this, candidates need to use Facebook Groups.
Facebook Groups offer candidates two key benefits over Fan Pages;
- Accountability and Transparency – Group admins are public, they’re group members with a verifiable background. Group members know they’re a real person, in return they see your profile; members feel connected and social capital starts to accumulate.
- Messaging & Events – crucially unlike Pages, Groups allow you, with a single click, to invite all the members to attend an event or send them all a message. This has clear benefits when organising and mobilising supporters for door-to-door canvassing, streetstalls, etc
It is this additional communication functionality offered by Facebook Groups that galvanises supporters in a way Fan Pages can’t.
Although Pages allow you to send updates to Fans via the Page wall, I would assume, personally from use, and have seen from experience, that combinations of inbox messages and event invites are much more effective at mobilising.
Additionally if all candidates created Facebook Groups based on their political party and election campaign it could build a vast network of supporters who would be contactable via Facebook messages or events within a few clicks. This would give parties the power to reach and engage the electorate in a trusted social space without needing to phone canvass or door-step – mobilisation tactics form the traditional marketing textbook which are becoming increasingly intrusive and redundant.