The use of digital marketing and social media could be the difference between Liberal or Labor come September 14. Nic Christensen speaks to the politicians and digital experts embracing online and swinging votes.
It was early June last year when the Prime Minister’s office first reached out to the bloggosphere. Julia Gillard’s office extended the invitation to a group of around 30 prominent female bloggers and high-profile online commentators to join the Prime Minister for afternoon tea at Kirribilli House.
“I got the email and at first I thought it was a joke,” says ‘mummy blogger’ Mrs Woog, who runs the site Woogsworld. “There was a group of us there, I guess you’d call us prominent ‘lady writers of the internet’, but at the end of the day if the Prime Minister asks you to come to afternoon tea, you go.”
Another blogger who attended the afternoon tea, Chantelle Ellen, who runs the blog Fatmumslim, says it was a low-key affair. “It was really casual and she didn’t touch on any hard topics, or anything like that – it was very surface stuff,” says Ellen. “There was nothing political at all. ‘I like your necklace’, that’s what the Prime Minister said to me. I had things I’d have liked to talk to her about but it didn’t really seem the time or place.”
Many in the mainstream media were dismissive of the ‘mummy blogger’ event at the time, but media commentator and publisher of women’s news and opinion sites Mamamia and iVillage, Mia Freedman, says there was a clear political strategy behind the event.
“They were obviously reaching out and engaging with influential people – people who can influence parts of the electorate and to not do that is madness,” says Freedman, who was also invited to the event. “I think it’s so easy to be dismissive when politicians reach out to a particular demographic. People talk about the term ‘mummy’ in this dismissive way but women vote. They are more than half the electorate and they are very influential in their household. They talk a lot more. They talk about the issues, the personalities, who they are going to vote for.”
John McTernan, Gillard’s director of communications, tells Encore that the event, one of a number of online events conducted by Labor in recent months, came about because of a recognition of the size and reach of the digital audience.
“These bloggers have a reach of more than 3.5 million people. They are trusted by their readers and communicate to a major mainstream audience,” says McTernan.
“We have a message we want to get across and we see them as an important channel for communication – just like we do with television.”
As the major political parties gear up for a September poll, the role of digital in the campaign is already being considered by political parties and media agencies alike.
In the run up to last year’s US election, Labor, Liberal and the Greens all sent staff over to look at what was being done by the Republican and Democratic parties.
In the 2012 election the two US parties spent US$78m on online advertising up from just US$20m four years before. In the Australian race there is likely to be similar growth in the focus on digital campaigning.
“In the US election, one in four voters used online to check facts, while one in three discussed the election on an online platform and it’s only growing in importance,” says McTernan, who points to Australia’s high levels of smartphone penetration as an example of the strong market for online communication in this election.
“I have a long-term relationship with the Democrats – one of the key things I have learnt about online is that ‘you have to be in it to win it’ and that means understanding new media and getting involved,” he adds.
Others are more sceptical. Last week, media research analysis firm Citiresearch said it did not believe the campaign would see a similar growth to the US.
“Is the Australian online environment sophisticated enough to really gain enough traction for politicians in that environment? Arguably, I’d say no,” says media analyst Justin Diddams. “We think Australia, in terms of our online evolution, is three years behind the US. That being said, we still expect more money to be spent – because that is where consumers are spending time.”
Toby Ralph, a marketing consultant and professional political mercenary, says that while digital’s influence continues to grow, strategists are yet to master its impact on swing voters.
“Digital is becoming increasingly important but it’s conversion of soft and swing voters is still in its infancy,” says a campaign veteran who has worked on more than 40 elections around the world. “Before too long 50 per cent of budgets are going to be digital but we aren’t there yet.”
While some experts remain unconvinced, many politicians are eager to embrace digital media as a campaign tool.
Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull tells Encore that the value is in direct communication with voters. “I think digital will be very important – it gets more important every election,” he says. “There’s nothing magical about it. It is another channel of communication that has the great advantage of being interactive. A lot of it can be repetitive – I get the same questions or comments about the NBN every day, but I think it is important that you have a feeling for it.”
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam agrees and says he welcomes how digital is opening up political communication.
“It is really interesting because digital has never been a broadcast medium,” he says. “For the major political parties it means there is a democratising of political communication. It is a dialogue – not standing up behind a podium. You are actually in a conversation with electors.”
Mia Freedman says she is seeing this with many of the online discussions Mamamia has hosted.
Last year she posted a number ofquestion and answer sessions with senior politicians including Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Jenny Macklin and Julia Gillard.
“It’s a really smart way of being on the ground with voters,” says Freedman.
She notes how digital outreach, both in editorial and advertising, has grown with every recent election and that specialist sites, like hers, are increasingly playing a key role in political discussions.
“I’ve seen it change dramatically in terms of the advertising we receive, the engagement from politicians and just in the way Mamamia is spoken about,” adds Freedman.
“Last election, immediately after the poll, if you Googled ‘Australian federal election’ we were the number three search term that came up and that was because we generated so much user-generated content through that election.”
“Politicians are finally coming to understand that if you’re not online and talking to women in both your advertising and in editorial then you are missing out,” she adds.
“Putting an ad on TV and doing a splash piece in a glossy magazine isn’t going to cut it – not this year.”
This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.