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Will German Politicians Adapt to New Trends in Digital Campaigning?

By Adrian Rosenthal, Head of Digital & Social Media, MSLGROUP Germany

The US presidential election was the biggest media event of 2012, in the United States and abroad and many German journalists followed the campaign trail, reporting live from the various battleground states. Two bloggers even used crowd-funding to finance an election-themed road trip to follow in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Back home, most media outlets – newspapers, radio, television, blogs – covered almost everything Obama and Romney were saying and doing. Axel Wallrabenstein, the chairman of MSLGROUP Germany, co-hosted an online talk with former government spokesman Béla Anda for Germany’s biggest newspaper Bild. Come election night, all eyes were on Washington, on Ohio, on Florida and, yes, on Twitter as most major German TV stations ran an extensive live coverage all night long.

New Tools & Trends

Every four years, in lockstep with the press, German politicians and political strategists associated with the major parties flock to the United States in order to observe the campaigns, to learn about new tools and trends and to meet with key figures and thought leaders for some inspirational words of wisdom. Obama’s ground-breaking digital campaign of 2008 caused German politicians to experiment with social networks as well. In the sense of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory, often younger or more unknown politicians used these “simple, convenient and low-cost innovations” to challenge established incumbents and to put themselves in the media spotlight simply by way of their use of Twitter. Like Obama in his primary battle with Hillary Clinton, they were often successful in reaching new target groups and gaining publicity just by using new digital channels.

Flash forward to 2012: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks are now established elements of political discourse and campaigns, though not on a scale comparable to that of the US. The Federal Minister for the Environment, Peter Altmaier, is an avowed fan and heavy user of Twitter. As is Steffen Seibert, the spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also connects to netizens by attending digital conferences like the re:publica, where he also met numerous politicians from pretty much all relevant parties.

A Comparison

But back to the politicians and strategists following and analyzing the campaigns of Obama and Romney: What new trends and tools could they witness during the recent US presidential election? Compared to 2008, the usage of social networks for engaging with key voters and key constituencies intensified and grew immensely. This is of course no surprise with a look at, for example, Facebook: In 2008, 40 million Americans where registered users of Mark Zuckerberg’s network. In 2012, this number had quadrupled to 160 million. Facebook was thus a key engagement and mobilization tool. And while Twitter became the dominant public sphere for real-time political discourse and rapid response reactions, YouTube turned into the visual storytelling and branding platform of the campaign. Apart from the Big Three, the candidates also turned to platforms such as Google+, Tumblr or Pinterest. And although television still ruled the advertising budgets, online and mobile advertising increased heavily and saw things like in-game advertising or YouTube mastheads. The digital teams of both campaigns also turned to mobile for fundraising or hyperlocal mobile apps to get people involved.

Big Data & Politics

However, the real success story, especially of the Obama campaign, can be subsumed under one word: data. Well, or two words: Big Data. At the 10th International Conference for Political Communications, which took place in Berlin just before the election (and which was co-hosted by us), the influence and importance of data and subsequently micro-targeting of voters was already deemed the key to success by many of the panellists. Vincent Harris, who ran the digital campaigns for Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, called Obama’s digital campaign app, fed by the sophisticated databases of the Democrats, the single best political campaign tool ever.

In retrospect, his verdict was right, as most political commentators agree that Big Data won the election (yes, even the WSJ joined this chorus). Obama’s digital campaign hub Dashboard and the databases fuelled an unparalleled ground game to get out the vote. It allowed what the New York Times dubbed the nanotargeting of voters with custom-made messaging. Users of the mobile campaign app were told for example whether their neighbour was a registered Democrat or Republican – or an Independent with whom you should definitely interact, drink a beer and talk politics (with the key talking points being delivered as well of course).

Germany’s Upcoming Elections

So how will this affect the national elections in Germany coming up next year? This question was at the core of an interview which Axel and I just had with the German magazine politik&kommunikation. The gist: Though many facets of digital campaigning have already been adopted as described earlier, there will certainly be no replication of the Big Data Election. The German population is very critical when it comes to the privacy of their data. This is what Jeff Jarvis calls the German paradox. Consequently, while targeted political ads via Facebook and Google should be tolerated with regard to common parameters such as geography and age, German parties have to be careful with regard to any deeper micro-targeting.

Furthermore, laws governing privacy are different from those in the US. And lastly, they currently do not and, thus, will not have extended databases anyway by election day. Budgets and limited resources will be additional reasons keeping German parties and politicians from running anything compared to the social media onslaught during the US elections. Not to forget the differences with regard to political culture. A beer with the neighbour? Sure, but not while talking politics.

Digital Campaigning: What to Expect

Nevertheless, German parties and politicians will certainly run more sophisticated digital campaigns than in the past, especially to reach younger target groups and online aficionados. The modes of communications and the ways information and news are traveling are constantly changing towards more digitalization.

Consequently, they will intensify their activities in social networks, they will blog, they will monitor, they will tweet. They will hopefully utilize YouTube more fully, which thus far has been treated like the ugly stepbrother of television by political parties. And they will probably jump into mobile campaigning as well.

The Social Democrats have already announced that they will launch a grassroots, door-to-door campaign to maximize their reach. It will however be interesting if they will also employ something like Obama’s dashboard or a mobile app to support this sort of campaigning. For Obama, the interconnectedness of online and offline activism has been the key to victory. It is very likely that the German parties will largely stick to plastering streets with billboards of smiling politicians, which serve more of a reminder that there will be an election soon than convincing people to actually vote for one of the candidates. But let’s wait and see what they will come up with next year maybe they will surprise us! We will keep you posted on how the surprise party is moving along!



Adrian leads the digital and social media team of MSLGROUP Germany. He started covering the US elections 5 years ago on his blog with a special interest in digital campaigning. Follow him on Twitter: @neurosenthal

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