Every election in Ireland over the past decade has been forecast as the first "digital election". None has really lived up to the billing.
Back in 2007, there was a pioneering feel to it. Several candidates tried blogs and video blogs but the audience was tiny. In 2011, Fine Gael did an audacious stunt when it closed down its (bland) website and replaced it with a simple video of Enda Kenny drinking a cup of coffee and inviting people to have a "conversation" with him.
Fine Gael and Labour put a lot of resources into their social media campaigns. They certainly had more impact. But as soon as the election was over, most of it died down as TDs slithered away from Twitter.
There has been huge growth in social media since then. There are 2.5 million Facebook accounts in Ireland and a quarter of the population has also signed up to Twitter.
News on smartphones
A study commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland last year showed that more than 40 per cent of people now access news digitally, with the smartphone taking an ever-increasing share. It also showed more people do not access news directly through media sites but laterally through “feeds” or shares on social media sites.
The same-sex marriage referendum and water protests showed how grassroot campaigns could simply bypass traditional media channels and still achieve extraordinary reach and impact. Clever use of short compelling videos and attention- grabbing graphics were also major propellants.
Combined Facebook posts from the Yes Equality Facebook page reached 1.6 million in the last week of the campaign. Short embedded videos reached audiences of hundreds of thousands: one featured Mary McAleese, another Daniel O'Donnell, yet another Madeleine Connolly, a 90-year-old who called for a Yes vote.
A good example of a grassroot campaign was #hometovote, which encouraged many thousands of emigrants to do just that.
The metrics for leading parties and politicians also tell a tale. Fine Gael has more than quadrupled its reach on Facebook since 2011 to 12,200, with Enda Kenny (with 41,400 followers) and Leo Varadkar (30,000), its major Twitter stars. Fianna Fáil (20,000) and Labour (28,000) have experienced similar exponential growth on Twitter.
But they have all been eclipsed by Sinn Féin, which has gone from near zero in 2011 to almost 80,000 likes on Facebook. Leader Gerry Adams has a phenomenal 100,000 followers on Twitter (spurred by some bizarre posts including a reference to trampolining naked), while Mary Lou McDonald (over 60,000 likes) is its most popular TD on Facebook.
The websites of parties now are like magazine covers, with gorgeous photography, interactive features, and slick graphics. Labour is still ahead of the curve, especially with its videos.
Each party now has a specific digital team, including designers and videographers, looking after websites and social media. All of the parties have conducted workshops and courses for officials and for candidates. No one can ignore Twitter or Facebook if they want a career in politics. Posting PR bumph is not enough – they need to interact with those they reach and be able to use graphics and video.
Labour posted a fantastic graphic during the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis comparing the respective records of both parties on jobs. A total of 21,000 people viewed a Facebook video posted by Jackie Cahill, a Fianna Fáíl candidate in Tipperary. He was doing no more than introducing himself.
Fine Gael has had many graphic-led posts attacking Fianna Fáil, its main rival for votes. Labour has run a successful series of short “real-life” videos that purport to show small improvements in people’s lives. As builders come into a family home, the woman says: “It’s great to be able to finally do the kitchen.” A gay couple hold hands as they go for a walk with their kids, as they say it is good to be able to do so openly.
The far-left parties have used brash, direct slogans and videos on social media that have also been hugely effective in reaching potential supporters.
Many of the Facebook feeds are designed for phones. With the mantra that a visual post will get shared twice as much as one with pure text, there are lots of photos and graphics.
Sinn Féin is particularly adept at posting videos with written banners and subtitles. Many who access videos on phones do so when the device is in silent mode – hence the need for written graphics.
The parties are coy about their spend on digital advertising. Sinn Féin says it is virtually zero. Labour has paid to promote its videos on YouTube and Facebook. All of Fine Gael's rivals agree it will be the big spender, with six-figure sums being mentioned.
You can see why. Social media retains so much personal information from accounts that it can accommodate a candidate who, say, wishes to send a specific message to every working woman aged 20-35 in her constituency. It allows them to tailor the message, but also the audience, for a relatively small outlay. From the perspective of civil liberties, it’s disconcerting. But the potential is obvious for a politician honing a message.
Sinn Féin’s director of communications Ciarán Quinn says social media particularly suits the party. “The traditional republican approach is using direct methods to talk directly to people. Don’t get me wrong, we have pointy elbows when it comes to traditional media. In the past we bypassed that with murals and our own newspaper. Now it’s social media.”
‘It’s about conversations’
For Majella Fitzpatrick, director of communications for Fine Gael: “It’s about conversations, linking our people with an audience that will resonate. If you do not engage you are not relevant; if you are not relevant you will not get elected.”
Labour's head of digital strategy, Shauneen Armstrong, says the party is using all available platforms, including Instagram; Vine (video); Periscope (live video); and Audioboom (audio).
“Simply, we need to bring our message to where people are. It is clear in this campaign that they are on social media.”
All parties emphasise they try to be authentic, in so much as that is possible. That means personal details, “unstaged” moments, and being prepared to engage and interact.
Fianna Fáil’s director of communications Pat McParland emphasises this: “When it’s authentic it works. Facebook users are a savvy bunch and know what is real and what is not.”
This time for the first time, the “digital election” will be very real.