But it's not online election perfection yet: Why UK politicians are still floundering in a web 2.0 whirlpool
When it comes to digital election strategies they don't come much better than the one used by Barack Obama to secure victory in the 2008 US presidential elections.
Obama's online campaigning generated $500m in donations and created an army of supporters fired up enough to cold-call voters and host hustings in their homes on his behalf.
It is little surprise then that the campaigning platform MyBarackObama.com has spawned a host of imitators in the 2010 UK elections: MyConservatives.com, the Liberal Democrat campaigning social network Act and the Labour Doorstep website.
All of the elements that fuelled the enormous groundswell of support for the US presidential wannabe are present within the UK parties' online apparatus. The web-based database of phone numbers for canvassing voters? Check. Tools to allow supporters to set up rallies and campaign meetings offline? Check. Thermometer-style fundraising widgets to allow people to donate online? Check.
The close resemblance of the UK political parties' online strategies to that of the Obama campaign has not escaped the notice of Joe Rospars: Obama's new-media director for his 2008 presidential campaign and a founding member of the agency Blue State Digital, which built the campaigning platform MyBarackObama.com.
US President Barack Obama mounted a highly successful online campaign in the 2008 US presidential election
(Photo credit: archiei via Flickr under the following licence)
"We put the opportunity to connect with people through the web at the centre of our campaign in 2008 and all the parties are replicating that - the notion that this is a place where relationships can be built and sustained," Rospars told silicon.com.
"What remains to be seen is how well they co-ordinate it with the offline and the volunteer operation, which was what ultimately helped us win."
Rospars said the key to a successful web election strategy campaign, and what clinched the deal for Obama, was making people feel like they could play a pivotal role in his election campaign, and then making it as easy as possible for them to do so, in their case using MyBarackObama.com.
"The potency of the grassroots energy for Barack Obama was partially for him as an individual and a leader, but also for the organisation and ordinary people's roles within it," he said.
The reason people felt like they really had a role to play in getting Obama elected was that MyBarackObama.com made it so easy to get involved, donating was as simple as clicking a button and local rallies were easily located on maps displaying locations and details.
The upshot was that money flowed into the Obama campaign, not from multimillionaire patrons, but from the pockets of blue collar America, with the average online donation standing at $80 and many people donating multiple times.
"We had people making two donations because they wanted to fund the kind of operation where they were the leaders of the campaign, they wanted to own a piece of the political process."
And yet where there was a meteoric rise in popularity in the US the bump in support and donations for the UK parties has been much more... conservative.
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The Conservatives saw a five-fold rise in visitors to its party website in February this year and have reportedly collected close to half a million email addresses. The Liberal Democrats have doubled the number of email newsletter subscribers compared to numbers at this point last year and Labour have used their members' website to organise more than 15,000 campaign events.
In comparison, by the end of the presidential campaign Obama's team managed to collect the email addresses of 13 million people and, with the help of canvassers recruited online, had gathered about 220 million pieces of data about US citizens.
The gap between the impact of the UK political parties' online strategies and the Obama campaign is maybe better illustrated by the far lower proportion of people donating online. For example, despite the Conservative's investment in its web strategy - it is the party reported to have the most expensive and the most longstanding web strategy - it has not paid off for the party in the same way it did for Obama.
Not hitting Obama levels yet
Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told silicon.com: "Are we in Obama territory yet? No. But in our target constituencies the impact that a few hundred pounds can make is large so every penny really does count," he said.
So it seems despite following in Obama's online footsteps the UK parties have failed to ignite the same level of popular support.
There are some obvious missteps in execution by the UK parties - the Liberal Democrats Act site is cluttered and more difficult to navigate than MyBarackObama.com, while Labour requires people to be card carrying members before they are able to access the online phone bank and start canvassing.
Rospars said Obama's digital team had learnt that a successful web election strategy relied on the political party removing any barriers that made it harder for everyday people to get involved with the political process.
"Every organisation has a decision to make as to how central the volunteers are to an effort, lowering the barrier to entry and raising the expectations as to what someone who is passionate about the organisation is able to do," he said.
"Seizing the moment when issues are in the news or when there's a spike in interest - that's a big part of pulling those people in and beginning new relationships."
Maybe comparing digital election strategies of two countries with differing political systems and cultures and with vastly differing sizes of population is unfair. A recent report by the political campaign charity, the Hansard Society, Behind the Digital Campaign, felt that online campaigning would always be more effective in countries where the electorate valued personality over party politics, as is the case in the US.
The report said: "Digital media seems to be more significant as a campaigning tool in countries where large-scale campaigns can be built around individual political personalities more so than when they are focused on party structures (the US being the obvious example here). Coalescence around a personality-led brand provides a powerful means of mobilising support and raising funds that is lacking in party-oriented democracies."
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Tapping into public power
The fact stands, however, that since the 2005 general election all of the UK parties have made progress in engaging with voters online - through new websites, social networking channels and in encouraging users to mash-up their content.
Both the Hansard Society and Rospars acknowledge how much more weight an endorsement of a party carries if it comes from a friend or family member, rather than directly from the political party, particularly in the wake of the damage done to politicians' public standing following last year's expenses scandal.
The Hansard Society report said: "The collapse in trust in politicians and, by extension, the political system following the expenses scandal means that traditional party broadcasts and sloganeering are no longer as effective as they once were, further boosting the credibility of peer-to-peer campaigning compared to more conventional methods."
Rospars said: "The highest quality interaction around political interaction is from their family, friends or colleagues. If somebody is passing on a message to their friends that's much better than it being delivered from an email bash from the party."
The Conservatives tapped into this phenomenon when they aped a strategy used by Obama in his presidential campaign and asked about 6,000 of the Conservative Party's fans to donate their Facebook status updates to the party to spread a political message during last year's European Parliament elections.
Shadow culture secretary Hunt said: "We were therefore able to send messages encouraging people to read our manifesto and vote for us via our supporters' profiles.
"The impact of this personal advocacy was even more powerful as it went to their networks of largely unpolitical friends, rather than preach to the converted.
"Over one million personal messages were sent via this app, so it proved to be incredibly effective."
Labour encourages supporters to produce user-generated content and has made available a series of campaign and poster creation tools on their website, as well as setting up LabourSpace, a message board where users can start campaigns.
Negative user-generated content can be even more effective. Members of the public produced parodies of a Conservative campaign poster showing an airbrushed photo of David Cameron, in which he was restyled as various characters including Elvis and the Little Britain character Vicky Pollard. The mock posters drew heavy web traffic and are now easier to find online than the Tory originals.
The original image of David Cameron produced by the Conservative Party
(Photo credit: The Conservative Party)
The defaced version of the David Cameron poster showing him as Elvis
(Photo credit: Andy Barefoot)
Regardless of its success, the emergence of digital election strategies has subtly altered the way that the political parties approach campaigning.
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The effect of the web strategies has been - as observed by the Hansard Society report - to send the parties into full election campaign mode all year round - with the parties constantly targeting key demographics by launching a constant slew of single-issue campaigns on their websites and through social networks.
These campaigns are designed to prick the sensibilities of voters outside of their traditional supporter base, and encourage new supporters to sign up for party updates via email or social networks.
Each of the main political parties are running these online campaigns, be it the Conservatives with Cash Gordon and Give up the Bonus or the Liberal Democrats with Axe the Tax.
When the general election rolls round, chances are those people will still be receiving newsletter emails from the political parties or be a fan of the party on Facebook.
With politics at the forefront of the public's mind in the weeks before the national ballot they are far more likely to be interested and therefore susceptible to these party political messages and increase their chances of voting for the party on the big day.
The importance of SEO
The Hansard Society report, which looked at political parties' approach to digital campaigning from 2008 through to the start of preparations for the 2010 UK general election, said this approach has only been made possible by improvements to the parties' web strategies since the 2005 general election.
It said: "Party websites (and the underlying digital technologies behind them) are becoming increasingly sophisticated, particularly in terms of how they capture and allow management of contact data, extending the marketing reach beyond members to an interested public of potential voters."
Of course the most important step is people being able to find these campaigns in the first place, a fact that has resulted in all of the parties going on a crash course in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Google AdWords, the sponsored links that appear on pages of Google search results.
Climbing the Google search result rankings was a key focus for the Conservative Party in revamping its website in 2008 - a redesign that also saw the content getting a lot richer, with photo walls from recent rallies, videos of speeches and highly visible links to MyConservatives.com.
Hunt said: "With so many people's online journey starting with Google, it is vital that our announcements, campaigns and policy updates are well optimised for search on conservatives.com."
The upshot is Conservative content is more visible online than that produced by their political rivals, research produced last year showed the Conservative website was on the first two pages of Google results following searches on a variety of issues, such as health or education, with Labour generally lagging behind on pages four or five.
However the revamped Conservatives.com website is only the hub of a much larger swathe of Tory content online, spread over blogs, social networks and video and photo sharing sites, such as Flickr and YouTube.
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Buying up Google links
With the Conservatives being the party that the Hansard Society estimates is likely to have spent the most on its digital strategy out of any of the main political parties, it is unsurprising they also lead the field in its use of Google AdWords.
Since 2008 the Tories have invested heavily in buying up AdWords linked to both Labour and Tory political campaigns or breaking news.
The party commonly buys keywords from speeches delivered by both the shadow cabinet and government ministers - such as Darling's speech during the March budget - and uses them to insert links to Conservative policy and speeches into Google search results. AdWords are used to link to Conservative content that can be promoting party policy, debunking or attacking Labour announcements or rebuffing political challenges.
The strategy allowed the Conservatives to exploit the resignation of the then work and pensions secretary James Purnell ahead of last year's European elections by purchasing links at the top of Google searches for Purnell's name that would send web users to a speech by David Cameron.
Conservative shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt says the Conservative online strategy is providing the party with new ways of connecting with voters
(Photo credit: The Conservative Party)
Hunt said: "Google search advertising is an important component of our digital outreach. It helps us take our message to millions of people who are looking for related information, and provides them with content that explains our position on that subject."
As the 6 May election date draws nearer the web team are stepping up their AdWords strategy, with the party currently buying sponsored links for 2,500 different words and phrases that it hopes will drive people to Conservative campaign content online.
The Lib Dems are much newer to using AdWords than the Conservatives, since Christmas 2009 the party has been buying up phrases linked to its own policy announcements but steers clear of the Conservative approach of hijacking other party announcements.
Liberal Democrat CEO Chris Fox told silicon.com the party is on a limited budget when it comes to purchasing AdWords - with each AdWord-purchase analysed to see how many people it led to sign up for more information about the party or to become a member of the party.
"We are extremely tight on budget so everything has to pull its weight," Fox said "It appears to be a relatively cost-effective way of getting people who are interested in what we to do."
In general the three main UK parties do make use of social networking but the Hansard Society report found that while one third of the UK's 643 MPs were on Facebook, in general they were using it largely to publish information and not to converse with constituents, a trend that was also reflected in the way they use their personal websites.
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The Tory's aggressive web strategy has allowed them to attract more followers and fans to their main party pages on Facebook and Twitter than those of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But with about 27,000 followers on Twitter the Conservatives are still a long way behind celebrities such as comedian Stephen Fry - who has 1.4 million followers.
As well as engaging voters, social media is providing the Conservatives with a way of easing new supporters into the party fold. A typical online journey to becoming a party member starts with someone following the Conservatives on Facebook, then signing up for a party newsletter, sending links to Conservative content to friends and family and finally joining the party and starting to help out with campaigning.
Hunt said: "Social media - and Facebook especially - has served as a fantastic recruitment tool for new supporters and means we can help them get out on the campaign trail and involved in other online activities (like donating, watching a video or sending content onto their friends)."
Social media poses both an opportunity and a risk for politicians, however, and in recent months the political classes have both benefited and been burnt by the open nature of Twitter, with Labour MP Tom Watson using it to strike a chord with outraged techies over the government's Digital Economy Bill, to wannabe politicians getting into hot water over their tweets.
Of course, when it comes to the final result there are bigger forces at play that threaten to swamp the inroads the parties have made online - the Lib Dems' resurgence following the party leader debates for instance - but there is little doubt that the web has a major role to play in the future of electioneering.
So perhaps 2015 will be the year when the UK political parties' web strategists will truly be able to say "Yes we can".