Is social media the new loudspeaker car?

wallacemegaphonecarIn 1987 I was the Conservative Party Agent for Richmond and Barnes, then the most marginal parliamentary constituency in the UK.

In the general election of that year we defended a majority of just 74 votes in the seat widely forecast as the most likely to be the first to fall to the Liberal Democrats.

In a TV interview, the redoubtable (now Baroness) Joan Bakewell started by asking me “how many votes do you expect to lose by?”

On polling day evening the LibDems were so confident of victory that they sent out old-fashioned “loudspeaker cars” broadcasting the message in the streets “we are winning in Richmond. Vote now to increase our majority!”

Research conducted after our victory in holding that seat against the LibDems with a majority increased to 1,766 votes showed that LibDems who hadn’t already voted hearing the message thought their vote wasn’t needed, whereas Conservatives ran out of their homes to try to stop their candidate losing.

This was an example of right message (maybe)  but wrong audience (definitely).

The old loudspeaker form of campaigning was broadcasting, it was a scatter gun effect of spraying a message over diverse audiences without any targeting.

In this case it was born of hubris, but in other cases just desperation to at least do something, as well as the fundamental error to think that campaigning is about getting your message to the most people.

It is not. It is about getting it to the right people.

I sometimes wonder if social media campaigning suffers from the loudspeaker car effect. Usually those cars used to tour “safe” areas to get the vote out. This worked o the basis that if a road was known to have residents most of whom were Conservative it wouldn’t matter if the message was heard by a few Labour people as well.

But in a less polarised political world it is rarely that black and white, or blue and red.

The same message is heard by different people in sometimes opposite ways.

Social media, as opposed to highly targeted algorithm drive online campaigning, is the modern equivalent of the loudspeaker cars – it largely just tells people what they want to hear.

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