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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Who won the AV Digital War?

When the history of the AV referendum campaign comes to be written, much ink will be spilled about the different messages and strategies of the Yes and No teams.

But for those interested in the digital war, it's been a fascinating, real-time example of just how to use - and not use - the internet.

I've talked to both campaign teams and it's worth giving a small snapshot of what's been happening online. In a nutshell, Yes for Fairer Votes seemed more of a field-based collective, No2AV were more of a traditional political party.

The Yes team, headed by Greg Poynton of Blue State Digital (for the uninitiated, they're the people who famously helped propel Obama into the White House), decided to fight a predominantly 'boots on the ground' campaign.

Partly reflecting their youthful base, they decided not to use the internet  to 'broadcast' but more to mobilise, organise and monitor their activists and supporters.

Their website was designed not to yell messages to punters who happened to come across it, but rather to "scale up" local groups of volunteers very quickly and very cheaply.

What helped hugely was the database that they began with - a massive 150,000 email addresses inherited from groups such as Unlock Democracy and Power2010, I'm told. They then added tens of thousands more during the campaign. The fundamental job of the campaign was not to develop fancy apps for iPhones, but to turn those email addresses into people who would man street stalls, phone banks and, crucially, send in donations.

Many of the activists, Yes says, have come not from political parties but from people who have never been involved in campaigning like this before. More than 3,000 events were created, including conference calls with campaign leader Katie Ghose.

In fact the Yes camp managed to raise a huge quarter of a million pounds online, with the average donation coming to £28. Its online fundraising has provided its third largest source of income (after its big donations from Rowntree Reform Trust and the Electoral Reform Society).

As part of this 'ground war' strategy, direct mail was also key. In fact, their personalised letters that coincided with the postal votes deliveries were so professional (and expensive, no doubt) that they sparked minor panic in the No camp when spotted.

So far, so Obama.

But while Yes focused on the ground war, the No2AV campaign was relentless in its 'air war'. And today was the equivalent on 'shock and awe', with the biggest one-day online advertising blitz in UK political history. Tens of millions of Get Out The Vote ads were placed on Facebook, Google and YouTube to hit as many eyeballs as possible. (I've asked just how much cash was spent today alone, but we'll find that out in a few weeks' or months' time.)

MessageSpace's Jag Singh, an early appointment as Director of Digital Comms for No2AV, was 'embedded' in the highest level of the campaign, attending all of their 8am morning meetings for example.

Unlike their rivals, No2AV didn't start with an email database and built one from scratch. It's thought to have been around the 40k mark. (As a rough comparison, Labour is estimated to have around 35,000 email addresses compared to half a million in the CCHQ email database).

With fewer email addresses, No2AV focused instead on mobile phones, 'text blasting' its supporters to mobilise them for meetings. Phone banks were seen as a waste of manpower.

A big strategic decision was also taken not to waste too much time on Twitter. Instead, the big traffic sites were targeted with paid ads and sponsored links. It seems to have worked. The No2AV YouTube site garnered twice as many views (250k to 125k roughly) as its Yes rival. Similarly, street stalls (seen as a typically Lib Dem type activity) were not high on the campaign's list of priorities.

Of course the ground war/air war split can be overdone as both campaigns had elements of both. No2AV spent 40% of its online budget on ads and around 60% on mobilising activists, providing research and fundraising.

From its hardline attack ads to its press operation and its mass bombardment approach, the No2AV campaign most felt like a mainstream political party. With its activism and social engagement, not surprisingly perhaps, the Yes campaign most looked like an NGO.

Whatever the result and despite the vitriol, both sides have a lot of respect for the different ways they engaged with the voters and their supporters. All three main political parties will be itching to get a full debrief at some point from both Yes and No.

Ultimately, as in any election, the campaigns may have been secondary to the core political messages on offer. You can have all the fancy social engagement and advert blitzes in the world, but it won't mean a thing if the punters don't like your policies.

Yet in a way, despite the expected low turnout, both Yes and No camps generated significant followings. Whatever view you take of the merits of AV, it would be a real shame if all this activism just came to a sudden halt.

It may not be possible, but I bet Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems would love to harness that energy, not to say cash, for the next general election. When the fog of war lifts, maybe they will.

 

 

 

 

 

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