Thursday, 21 August 2014

Looking at the Scottish Referendum: what drives social media engagement?

As a Scot living in Glasgow, the phrase "we live in interesting times" could not be more apt. In less than a month on the 18th September the country will vote to leave or stay within the union of the United Kingdom.

We are immersed in a continual discussion of the pros and cons of independance. Almost all conversations contain reference to or are focused on the debate. In pubs, on the bus, at the shop till, in restaurants everywhere you turn it is being talked about. None more so than on social media. What is strikes me about the debates on social media is how different they are form other political campaigns or discussions.

In recent years the Obama 2008 campaign stands out as the text book case of how to use the new channel of digital social media to powerful effect. The NYT summed up the importance of his campaign in the wider context of political use of the media:

Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and money manager who blogs at “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”

Obama did this with the help of some of the founders of the web 2.0 age, such as Mark Andreessen the founder of Netscape and on the Facebook board. He used a central site to sign up over 2 million supporters and provide the digital and real world tools to campaign on the issues which he stood for and that resonated with them and their communities. He had over 1.2 million friends on facebook trumped his competition on twitter and YouTube. Through the empowerment of a grassroots movement his message of hope can across loud and clear.

In Scotland today the way the Yes and No camps use social media has one striking difference. The No campaign feels very centralist. There is a single message delivered by the BetterTogether group, and echoed by the no sub groups. The Yes camp is a collection of diverse groups who all share the same common goal but have different personal views on why it is important and what it means to them. There is the "official ", which models itself on the Obama campaign and disseminates information and motivates independent action.  But it is just one in the digital crowd. Many are not SNP(the party who has a majority in the scottish parliament and are the traditional voice of independence) supporters, there are groups from the Greens, The Labour Party, the Socialists the Liberals. Many professions have formed groups, there are groups defined by location, by interests, by race, by gender, by the type of pets they own. Each one is not a carbon copy of the official Yes campaign. They are all singing their own tune. This is in stark contrast to the sense of a monolithic No camp.

Both camps may use stories from traditional news outlets as the kernel of a posting, but rarely is it just a case of sharing a story. Often a group will dissect and analyze the story. Admittedly each is full of their own prejudices and biases, but the effort that goes into blog postings and Facebook and twitter discussions is impressive. Neither are the Yes or No postings/blogs always preaching to the converted. Yes and No supporters will comment and post on each other's blogs and postings. Real discussion goes on. Most of the time it, or what I have seen, is genuine discussion and friendly banter. Only occasionally are real insults thrown.

Celebrity endorsement comes from both camps, but organised collective efforts such as the over 200 celebrities who signed a letter urging Scotland to stay in the Union was met with confused shoulder shrugging by most Scottish social media commentators. However when economists, historians, industry leaders or academics take a stance and provide endorsement or evidence one way or another, they are seized upon by both camps and thrust to the fore to become unlikely champions. Politicians statements from both camps are met with greater venom than those of mere mortals.

Scotland is not voting to elect a president or even a government. Alex Salmond is presented by the No camp as the leader, the boogie man who is attempting to con the Scottish people. To the Yes camp he is merely a vehicle for their ambitions and his role is far less important than that of the people who want Yes. The vote is about the future of the country. It is a very, very significant and unique moment for the people of Scotland. The level of passion it arouses is tangible and is manifest in the digital out pourings. It is this passion which is at the heart of the Yes and No campaigns.

The centralist approach is the model that each official leading campaign group has adopted. But why is it that the Yes campaign groups have run and taken the campaign as their own where as the Nos have clinged to the parent ship more closely? The No campaign has always been on the back foot as it is arguing for the status quo. We are doing very well thank you why rock the boat, why take risks, why go into the unknown?

The Yes groups are all embracing the risks, the uncertainty the lack of hard facts about tomorrow's future. They are characterised by optimism and, to borrow from 2008, Hope. The energy that is seen in the Yes campaign is a reflection of a sense of excitement for a new future, for the work ahead, for the opportunities, not the continuum of the norm.

This campaign, whatever the result, shows that we should not think about engagement. Engagement is a word describing, taking part, sharing, participating. The people of Scotland are not using social media simply out of a desire to take part, or share their views. This is about passion. Intensity, a desire to make change a real need to add their weight to the argument.

In the commercial world the brands which have an active and intense following are those which support or deliver services or products which allow individuals to express or fulfill their passions. When a dull brand or product reaches out to social media to "engage" consumers, they have a real challenge. Humour, incentives, endorsement can all buttress their efforts, but nothing will replace real passion. Seek out the activities, views, needs, desires which induce real passion in your audience and you will have a far greater chance of inspiring genuine interest and productive engagement.

No comments:

Post a Comment