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How Social Media Will Cure Voter Apathy

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Last year, US President Barack Obama's re-election campaign was notable for the unprecedented role of social media canvassing. Put frankly, the election will probably be the last where the public is 'surprised' by the role of SM. When used well it can be a decisive factor, and the 2012 election has essentially set the international standard.

So how can politicians in the UK use this emerged media to solve the greatest challenge of modern British democracy - voter apathy?

After all, what voters often clamour for is access to those at the top, and the main platforms - Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - appear to facilitate the direct dissemination of a politician's views.

Now, though it's rare that the politicians themselves send all their updates, many voters feel that they have a direct line, and can influence their leaders. Twitter, in particular appears to bypass traditional editorial dividing lines and as such voters feel that they are getting a purer message. Actually, by reducing the amount a politician can tweet to 140 characters, it could be argued the format obviates spin.

Having said this, social media platforms are not direct conversion tools. If you have gone to the trouble of following a politician, it is likely that you already support their policies. Preaching to the converted, right? Wrong.

The strongest salesmen are happy customers, and Barack Obama's followers on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest clearly demonstrate a degree of pride via association with him. If his messages are pitched correctly, they will be shared. This was reflected in the famous 'Four more years' message, which quickly became the most shared Tweet ever, with over 800k retweets.

This is what's known in advertising as 'earned marketing' - when content manages to mobilise an audience to act on your behalf. It's a bit like playing British Bulldog in the playground, where anyone you catch joins your side. Like this, the challenge may be catching them in the first place.

Presently, social media is a tool that benefits liberal parties more than conservative ones. The reason is partially the age gap - Labour voters tend to be younger than Tory ones - and partially down to the very nature of the political landscape. Conservative politicians often come from privileged backgrounds, and for this reason voters are unconvinced by Mitt Romney or David Cameron trying to say 'I'm just like you'.

For this reason in pure marketing terms - there is a fundamental advantage in the 'leftie mob,' as Twitter is sometimes called. It's what marketers call 'Opportunity-to-see' (OTS) and has a profound effect on consumer (read voter) behaviour. The greater your OTS, the more likely your message is to win the hearts and minds of the public. Simple as.

But this bias won't necessarily always be the case. Actually, the next UK election will make good viewing as our Conservative PM, David Cameron, has a solid lead in social media terms - 179k Facebook followers next to Ed Miliband's 17k. To use the British Bulldog analogy again, he has already got a gang of people on his side.

But will this actually mobilise more people to vote? I certainly hope so. Actually, the biggest bounce will probably come if the election method itself changes. Something very akin to Facebook voting would drive rise with voters who increasingly shop, socialise, and watch content online - and if politicians are serious about transparent open democracy than this should be entertained sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, it's about getting the messaging right. Remember Cameron's 179k followers? Well Barack Obama's on 34 million. Liberal bias aside, our politicians need to update their status, fast.

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