February 4, 2012

Desi elections in Digital Age

Punjab recorded the highest turnout of voters (77%) during an election year that allowed no blaring speakers, road shows, high decibel advertising campaigns and minimal social media promotions. Even so, a significant number of youth and female voters came out to state their choice.  

What can we infer from this positive response to a dismal lack of the politics of persuasion?  
The great India divide between the think-global; act-local and Bharat segment of the Indian electorate was bridged to an extent by mobile media penetration but (Alas!) the internet does not network them seamlessly. This despite the fact that India has one of the biggest presence on social networking sites. At the last count, it was 38 million active Facebook users, 13 million Twitter, 12 million LinkedIn and 4 million Google + users.   

Political marketing strategists in India have been using internet-based solutions since National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) India Shining campaign in 1990s.  Micro blogging, voice over internet protocol (VOIP) and social media platforms were used extensively during the subsequent elections. But surprisingly, modern technology has not found wide-scale use during the political campaigning in the five states of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Uttar Pardesh.  

We did not see any YouTube videos going viral in Punjab or Uttrakhand. Jassi Khangura, the Congress candidate from Halka Dakha constituency in Punjab although kept a very sticky profile on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Jassikhanguramla) and had an equally impressive website (http://www.jassikhangura.com/) his poll managers failed to make the most of it during the campaign period.
To some extent the Election Commission’s model code of conduct can be blamed for it. It bars all political parties from putting out outdoor hoardings, posters and banners, or making public proclamations and promises ahead of the polls, a media vacuum that astute poll managers could have easily filled with a clever use of the digital medium. Sadly, this was nowhere in evidence.  

Indeed, when Akhilesh Yadav came out with a full-page print campaign in a leading daily in December inviting his constituents to “voice their thoughts and questions” through email, Facebook or Twitter accounts, one expected that his minions would at least update his account but save for a few videos this more less frequently than expected.      
Repetitive forms of campaigning can make politicians net savvy, cynical or desperate, but in Samajvadi Party’s case the use of "guerilla marketing" through Facebook and Twitter was completely lack-lustre. Ditto for Congress Party, while Behen Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party has yet to make its debut on Facebook.   

In neighbouring Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) campaign hinged precariously on their success in the 2007 elections and comprised of nothing more than a string of unimaginative, achievement- listing claims, that sounded hollow, to say the least. This time round however, the game plan may not really pay off, as voter profile has changed significantly during the interim.

Individually, both SAD and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) felt comfortable using conventional media to persuade voters to bring them back to power. Each took a 360 degree approach, evident in the use of integrated marketing communication to connect with voter segments, across territories, with very little, if any, use of the social media websites.

In contrast, Punjab Pardesh Congress Committee tried injecting humor to leverage anti-incumbency with a viral campaign, released in both online and offline format, albeit with disastrous consequences. They chose a unique political advertising strategy featuring two male caricatures, Jeeta & Jaggi, to carry forth their messages to the denizens, forgetting that the happy-go-lucky Punjabis are also overly sensitive and take affront easily. They forgot, to their detriment that the stereotypical portrayal may not work in a scenario where Manmohan Singh’s (MMS) suave image has already cut through the boisterous hyperbolic persona of BJP MP from Amritsar, Navjot Singh Sidhu. Reports are that in three days of its debut, MMS’s Facebook profile managed to garner 23,968 followers.  

Voters were quick to take umbrage at the turbaned, lathi-wielding Punjabi mascot who posed dumber-than-dumb questions. The campaign lost steam mid-way and had to be eventually abandoned. Humour sells only when it’s saleable humour. PPCC advertising campaign instead raised a sad spectre that no one appearing willing to buy into. To also lacked an identifiable core strategy and coherence. 

This is an important lesson for the users of digital medium. It’s not just cost-effective, it’s also highly interactive. All offending piece can quickly be taken off the medium. Digital also yield accurate data – more accurate than any other conventional medium – that can be used to engage different segments different and the results of all these efforts are also immediately observable and measurable.

Twitter is a more reactive platform, which is one reason why it’s more effectively used by Indian politicians. The old joke doing the round of political circles is that Shashi Tharoor’s career ended the day he started tweeting. But of course there can be other more effective ways of using social media - to collect links of events and news stories; air personal opinions; to post video links of pad yatras and door-to-door campaigning; and invite reactions and comments to have a two-way communication with one’s constituents and stay in the reckoning. Other imaginative uses could be gathering e-petitions and endorsers digitally, or for recruiting youth volunteers.
Political advertising came into its own from the days Rajiv Gandhi hired Lintas Bombay to handle the Party’s public image. Thereafter, others took cue and Samajwadi Party came out with a print campaign featuring Amitabh Bachchan, followed by National Democratic Alliance’s ‘India Shining’ campaign by Grey Worldwide that did create a buzz but, did not deliver the goods and NDA lost the 2004 elections. And therein, hangs a tale; a different tale.

Ground rules of political campaigning 

Rule No#1. One size does not fit all. Don’t have ‘one message’ for all voters. Craft different messages for different voter segments.
Rule No#2. Good work doesn’t always lead to good results. Don’t make the mistake of blowing your own trumpet.  The voters are very well-informed these days. They will see through the smokescreen and reject your efforts, outright.

Rule No#3. Start second to finish first. Wait for the challenger campaign to kick-off and study its impact. A psychographic profile of Indian voters should tell you that we harbor a huge trust deficit. If you are in the opposition, you can use that to your advantage. Greater share of voice, without equivalent share of mind and heart does not lead to positive outcomes.

Fixed vs. floating. In your message, try to woo the fence-sitters. They are the game changers. 
Don’t just do it for a lark. Everybody is not Navjot Singh Sidhu or Shekhar Suman. Don’t go overboard with your humour dose. 

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