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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 1°C

Digital can deliver vital votes - but how do politicians earn the 'like' love?

Nothing can beat the knock on the door – sure – but this will be the year to pay attention to the ones who don’t answer.

IT’S NOT OFTEN that everyone can agree with a statement made at a political party conference but in the case of Marcella Corcoran Kennedy at the recent Fine Gael Ard Fheis, she was 100 per cent on the money: This will definitely be the most digital general election we have ever had.

The explosion in social media creates huge challenges and opportunities for both the media and the political parties as they seek to engage with readers, listeners, viewers, users… and of course the ultimate prize for the candidates, voters.

For the politicians, the big question is how many first preferences and transfers can Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and all the rest, deliver on.

It’s in the nature of politics that filling potholes and fixing street lights are grist to the mill for anyone sensing the merest hint of a vote. But there’s a different challenge when it comes to social media.

The doorstep canvas vs social media contact

The traditional doorstep canvas offers plenty of indicators for experienced campaigners – the gushing reception on the doorstep, the pledge given with a flicker of the eyes, the hostile riposte on approach, the dog snapping at the heels. It all makes for an easy judgement call on whether a vote is in the bag or not.

Social media is generally more complex with the exception of downright abuse, which is a fairly easy indicator. So how do candidates evaluate the power of their digital investment?

Passive consumption of all manner of “stuff” means that a Tweet endorsing the local GAA or a Facebook comment showing a grizzled auld campaigner can “get with the kids” might still deliver that ultimate electoral gift of a ballot paper Number One.

What makes for ‘amazeyballs’?

And if it does – to borrow a near-miss comment from Aengus O’Snodaigh – the outcome could be ”amazeyballs”. Irish electoral history is littered with examples of seats being won or lost on a handful of votes.

It’s still true – as one politician recently told me – that nothing can beat the knock on the door but what if everyone’s out? And what about the ones that don’t answer the door, the ones that are up in the bedroom with headphones on, the ones that went to the trouble of registering to vote in the Marriage Referendum?

Some may not bother to go to the polling stations but others with a taste of how voting can make a difference just might turn out.

The lesson is clear that while politicians and their supporters pound the streets, they still need to spare some resources for the most powerful forms of digital communication.

So where do they start? One candidate told me he is planning to use Facebook but hasn’t got much time for anything else.

Facebook has the most firepower right now

Without a doubt, Facebook has the most firepower right now but there is still a value in developing other networks. The right words and pictures hitting the right touch points could help an aspiring TD to engage with a whole new cohort of voters.

ipsos Ipsos / MRBI Ipsos / MRBI / MRBI

After all, if a campaign team can spend the time organising an on-the-day lift to the polls for a voter with mobility issues to get a vote, then it has to be worth investing time in getting a candidate’s thoughts and insights out on social media. Even sharing a viral video might get a Number One as well as a smile.

For the media, there are similar challenges about how much to invest in the campaign and where to invest it. Election coverage at major news organisations is a hungry elephant that eats up resources 24/7. The work involved in satisfying the traditional platforms of newspapers, radio and television usually leaves hardened political journalists gasping for breath. Now there’s a digital black hole to fill as well.

Is #GE16 a turn-off or turn-on?

The get-out for news organisations holding off on blanket coverage is the time-honoured question of how much election fodder can the voters take before they start to scream: “Please God, no more!”

But for the first time in this campaign, we will start to get deeper and more meaningful answers to the question of whether politics in the form of #GE16 is a turn-off or a turn-on.

The old click measurement is gone. Now we have new sophisticated tool to tell digital editors how people are accessing election coverage, how long they are engaging with stories and what kind of issues are driving their interest.

The ability to gauge more accurately the power of stories will also have a valuable dimension for politicians.

Now, more than ever before, they will know which of their policies are making an impact and – more significantly – which issues could lead to a major vote swing on polling day.

The main parties have been quick to realise this. Metrics are a new and insightful measurement of all types of brand.

The #MarRef effect


The Marriage Referendum clearly demonstrated the power of social media to influence and promote opinion but – more crucially – to serve as a call to action by casting a vote.

The challenge now is for politicians is to make their messages as effective as possible to drive traffic – that’s you and me – into the polling booth.

Let the digital battle commence.

Bob Hughes is a former Deputy Director of News at TV3 and Channel 4 News producer, and is Consultant at RTH Media Ltd.

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