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VICTORIA, BC – This month’s election of the first Green Party member to parliament marks a turning point in Canadian politics. It’s not just the make-up of parties that has changed in 2011. What has also changed are the kind of people who voted and the new ways that election campaigns can reach them.
In what has been dubbed the first “social media election”, cutting-edge election tactics are using new media such as Facebook and Twitter to attract a newer, younger and internet-savvy generation of voters.
Facebook campaign expert Ivo Beitsma, whose marketing company PeopleGroup worked on the Green Party’s country-wide social media efforts in the weeks leading up to the election, says he won’t reveal intimate secrets of the campaign’s success. However, precise targeting – basically, reaching specific groups of people because of their qualities and demographics – played a large role.
People tell Facebook a lot about themselves, including their interests, the books they read, and how they lean politically. Thanks to the way people use Facebook, PeopleGroup was able to put the Green Party’s message directly in front of only those it wanted to. ”Conservative voters didn’t see our messages unless we wanted them to,” says Beitsma. “While at the same time, we emphasized environmental messages to those who we knew had an interest in that. We showed swing voters messages about fiscal responsibility, and so on.” Fans of Margaret Atwood’s books were specifically shown a message by the author, endorsing party leader Elizabeth May.
Beitsma saw a relationship between the casting of final votes and his online targeting. One measure was support for the Green Party compared to the last election. “Three ridings in the country had a significant surge in Green support, measured in votes,” he explains. “And those were the ridings where we pumped our Facebook efforts.”
Paul Noble agrees. Noble is the party’s internet campaign coordinator for Saanich Gulf-Islands, which is the riding in which Elizabeth May earned her historic win. Online targeting, he says, was “an important part of the major momentum we received in the final weeks” of the campaign.
Despite powerful targeting, PeopleGroup never saw any private information about users, Beitsma explains. ”It doesn’t work like that. We just get to create the message and decide what kind of people see it.” If a message works, its lifetime is extended. If it doesn’t, it can be tweaked in real time, usually minutes.
It’s not just a new generation of voters who can be reached using social media. According to Facebook, there are just over 200,000 people of voting age who log on to use its service in the area immediately surrounding Victoria, and over 65% of them are over age 30. But Beitsma says that his campaign inspired a meaningful number of new voters, especially those aged 18-21. ”They were inspired anyway, but we reminded them, often, and in sophisticated and varied ways.” He adds that while it’s true that there are lots of older people with Facebook profiles, it’s the younger generation that spends the most time there. So the campaign’s greatest effect was on them.
Social media efforts by the Green Party in this election included a number of ways to gather groups of supporters, encourage them to attend events and spread messages virally, as well as advertisements, he says. Much of it was already in place before PeopleGroup was hired, and a team of volunteers continued to work in parallel with the company, which has worked on election campaigns before and now specializes in social media.
One such volunteer was climate scientist and part time web designer Trevor Murdock. By canvassing for the Green party and also being Facebook-savvy, he was able to assist the online effort. Speaking with people at their doors, Murdock was able to inform the online campaign with messages that he had tested in the field, and which connected well with potential voters.
PeopleGroup’s campaign extended across the country with an emphasis on ridings where the Green Party had a good chance. Elizabeth May ran and won her first term as Member of Parliament for Saanich – Gulf Islands, a riding formerly held by five-term Conservative incumbent Gary Lunn.
Ivo Beitsma PeopleGroup Nanaimo, BC 250.751.4864
Trevor Murdock MoreThanSolutions Victoria, BC 250.721.5204
Paul Noble Elizabeth May Campaign Victoria, BC 250.686.2860