Much has been said about the influence of the internet on this election, especially after the example of Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008.
I've been talking to Mark Hanson, who works with Labour's new media team, about how the Labour Party is using the internet, and what they have learned from Obama.
What is your role in Labour’s online campaign?
I used to be a Labour blogger, I started working on the Labour Home website three years ago with Alex Hilton and Jag Singh.
As a mainstream PR person, I noticed how communication was changing, and the party has started to understand that we needed to act as more of a network. Rather than just broadcasting messages online, we started to pull in talent from Labour supporters who were active online, not just staffers.
I’ve been working with Labour’s new media team from a PR perspective, working on things like blogger outreach and social media, looking at how bloggers and journalists promote or respond to our ideas, and dealing with negative comments.
Why have political parties have been slow to adapt to the internet and social media?
This is true of all political parties in the UK. I think the Obama campaign was a big game changer, as it was a very high profile example of a campaign that had used the internet and made it work. Whilst we ere already on the track
Like all big organisations, political parties eventually adapt and I think there is now the realisation that online isn’t just about the website.
Is it hard work convincing MPs of the value of social media?
A lot of work goes into selling spreading the message about new media to Labour MPs and candidates and how to properly utilise it.
We held clinics to show them how to use the various online tools, and some go away from these having really got it and being keen to try it out, while some feel it’s just not for them.
The important thing is to help those that do and encourage those that are unsure. We’ve also made the technology available to make it easier, for instance, for candidates to design their site, raise money online and sync up their presence on different social networks.
A year ago, we appointed Kerry McCarthy, who the press dubbed as ‘Twitter Tsar’, as our new media spokesperson.
She talks to people in the party, especially those in the cabinet, on an informal basis about what they can do online and how they can make it work, but no one is forced to do it.
If you’re a good communicator, you are likely to be good at using social media, one reason why John Prescott comes across well online.
What do you do to avoid cock-ups by Labour people on social media sites?
There is no formal process for this; we just make it clear that everyone can see what you write, and that it becomes a permanent record.
Most politicians are accustomed to the fact that all their public utterances are scrutinised, so they have to be careful about what they write online.
Also, the Tories have a team that is dedicated to monitoring Labour’s Twitter feeds, ready to jump on any error.
What is interesting is the extent to which politicians are able to build relationships with journalists through social media sites. If you do it properly, there is a huge opportunity here for politicians. If we were constantly intervening and warning that the merest mistake will be calamitous we would lose the positive interactions that we’re seeing between candidates and the public.
How important will the internet be for this election campaign?
It has been dubbed the first internet election, and also the Mumsnet election, but a better description would be the Word of Mouth election, that is using new technology to make it easier for people to do what they’ve always done – talking to friends, having discussions and making the case.
We’ve made it easier for people to make calls, pass on and share content, organise together and find events happening near them. So, we were able to make over 300,000 face-to-face contacts this week (triple the same stage in 2005) and 60,000 phone calls now made through the virtual phonebank,
What it also means is that, now more than ever, politicians have to talk to real people.
We have a user base that is less homogenous; people are defined by very specific criteria – you can’t just talk to the working class as a group; instead you have to communicate on an issue-by-issue basis. Social media gives politicians an opportunity to speak to these groups.
Really, the way the internet is influencing the election is by modernising the things we already do.
Labour’s objectives online are real world ones, for example encouraging more people to knock on doors, and we have managed to get twice as many people involved in this than we did in 2005. We have also made 40,000 calls using the Virtual Phone bank tool.
The internet is influencing this, but we shouldn’t get carried away that this is just new shiny stuff, it is about using more efficient, targeted and interactive ways of meeting our objectives and in a very measurable way.
Is the online side of the election campaign this year a learning process?
With any election, there are always a lot of new tactics, but we have been trying and refining things for the past two years so we have some idea of what works. For example, email targeting has been producing some amazing results.
Like any party, we try to learn as much as we can from other countries, as a lot can change in the five years between general elections.
Yes, there are some experimentations, but we try to minimise this by testing things out in advance.
What have you taken from the Obama campaign and applied to Labour?
I think the expectation that you can transplant wholesale what the Obama team did is unrealistic, as there are key differences.
In the US system you essentially create a campaign from scratch, producing the entire infrastructure, and for a one-year campaign. Here, we have a fixed party structure, and funding is raised on an ongoing basis.
For Labour, we are the incumbent party, while Obama was a challenger, and a very special candidate.
Things likes use of email and technology can be taken from the Obama campaign, but the language used in the US wouldn’t work here, so this has to be adapted.
Some of the software has been valuable, such as the Virtual Phone Bank. Using this, we have been able to use new media to get people out and making phone calls.
The Phone Bank means that people can make calls from home or wherever is convenient at a time that suits them.
CRM tools also help, when people join the party now they get a phone call within two hours to welcome them and suggest things they can do to help out. This is about capturing users when they are warm and showing them that they are valued.
This all amounts to more activity – 50% of people that sign up get a call within two hours, and 50% of these end up helping out.
The DIY Cameron posters online seems to have been a success – how did that happen?
This is core to explaining the journey we’ve been on, and us realising that we had to act as part of a broader online network.
We don’t have all the good ideas, there are some people who do things independently of us and when this happens we do what we can to help, by providing publicity, or the skills or software.
The MyDavidCameron idea happened independently, but we saw it taking off and incorporated it. Gordon Brown mentioned it in PMQs, we briefed the lobby journalists and we hosted the DIY tool on our site to give greater exposure and help more people make their own Cameron posters.