Wasted Opportunity

Today is Election Day in Ontario, so it gives me a chance to assess the digital campaigns for all three of the major parties. Mark and I plan to discuss each campaign in greater detail on next week’s RootsCast, but I wanted to offer my general thoughts before the votes are cast. What I can conclude is that the 2014 provincial election was the “broadcast election”. In many ways, this election has reversed the trend we have seen over multiple contests across Canada and the United States where the online portion of the parties’ election machine took an increasingly prominent role.

This time around, the digital efforts played a reduced – one could argue insignificant – part in the election. Instead, all three parties took a traditional, safe route: focusing on ad buys and broadcast messaging. Over the last 5 weeks, there has been virtually no direct engagement with voters by the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives or New Democrats. There was no effort to focus on web-specific content, where potential voters could interact with candidates or content.

Ontario follows the trends I have observed in provincial election inAlberta and British Columbia, where the uninspiring online portions of the campaigns were relegated to the sidelines. Why does this keep happening? A few reasons:

      Cultural: The people who are running the campaigns (and decide where limited budgets are spent) have run the same campaigns for years. They focus on wide TV/radio buys that people skip with their PVRs, flyers than no one reads and lawn signs that voters ignore. Why? They have always done it this way. And believe me, many of those same people do not use social media, which makes it difficult for them to grasp the potential value.
      Effort: Let’s be honest – it is much easier to cut a commercial than to build an online community. Broadcasting can be done quickly with very few resources to actually produce the ads. Both on and offline, parties have turned away from trying to recruit volunteers and voters, opting to try and hit them all with ads in movie theatres or other mass communications platforms.
      Budget: I do have to be fair and say that the Obama campaign can have 200 digital team members because they have the budget for it. But in Canada, there are scarce resources to spend on digital infrastructure, etc. This is a definite limitation, but all parties in Canada are in the same boat and need to grapple with that reality.
      Planning: Part of the way to get around that lack of budget is to invest over time, building the infrastructure over time to ensure that current annual investments build off of past investments. There is no evidence that this is happening with amongst any of the parties.

I get it – every year, less people are donating, volunteer on interacting with political parties. Which means that every dollar needs to go further. I happen to see technology as a solution well suited to that situation. Not only it is one of the most cost effective ways of getting your message out, it can help you target your audience more effectively while empowering volunteers to do more with less.

But for that to happen, there needs to be a commitment to making online campaigning a priority. From where I sit, each of the three parties decided to take the easy route, focusing on a traditional broadcast strategy, rather than invest time and effort into digital. A wasted opportunity to move the ball down the field.