Saturday, February 20, 2010

Social Media for Politicians. A Growing Trend in Sri Lanka

Another election is coming up in the horizon in this part of the world where I live in. This time it’s going to be a parliamentary election, which happens every six years according to the Sri Lanka constitution. Already the Colombo streets are cluttered with posters and hoardings featuring broadly smiling faces of politicians of all major parties, who are appealing for our attention. In a few days time, the commercial slots of prime time TV will also get cluttered by repeated boring messages from various politicians campaigning for the election. Beneath all these drama, there is completely a new dimension of political marketing budding in, which only a handful of them tried out during the 2004 general election. Politicians are beginning to discover the internet, and they are sensing the power of social media and online communities. Politicians in this part of the world, are increasingly trying to strengthen their presence on the internet and social networking sites, most definitely following the foot steps of Barack Obama, who’s campaign was the best case study of effective use of social media for political campaigning.



In a country where everything is politicized to the maximum level that it could reach, we can not expect Facebook news feeds to be de-politicized, especially in an election environment. During recent weeks, we’ve seen many individuals expressing their political ideology more openly on Facebook, and fruitful conversations being happening here an there. The true “social part” of Facebook is beginning to activate among Sri Lankan users (whose primary motivation to be on Facebook was just be on the latest trend, or to be appear "cool").

The cultural attitude towards the concepts of "selling and marketing" historically remained negative among the Sri Lankans. Our people deemed anything, which involves spending huge amount of money to push forward, as “inferior” in quality. There was this cynic feeling all the time, among Sri Lankans "why do they spend this much of money to promote themselves, if they are really good?". This has been a real challenging barrier to break for marketers, and when it comes to marketing a political ideology, the things started to get even worse. If a political party decides to spend massive amounts of money on advertising and promotions, people started to believe that the money they are spending is coming from some “foreign invincible forces”, with some hidden agendas. Parties with smaller advertising budgets utilized this "public fear" to gain momentum for their own campaigns, by publicly speaking about the "wastage" done by parties with bigger budgets. This was highly evident in the JVP’s criticisms against the "Thaarunyata Hetak” campaign, during the recently concluded presidential election. A regular question asked was "what if these money be spent on something useful for the poor?"

The presidential election which was concluded few weeks ago marked phenomenal new developments in "political marketing" in this region. For the first time in history, we heard the words "Facebook" and "Internet" used repeatedly in some of the regular press conferences held by government and opposition politicians. More than during anytime in the history, "Word of Mouth" was used as a channel of communicating the political ideologies to the masses. When an opposition politician cite a comment made on a popular news website as evidence for government corruption, the governing party politicians responded by saying "you can't win elections by creating a buzz on Facebook or by spreading word of mouth rumors". All in all, these conversations signal us that Facebook and Internet has now become at least "talking points" in Sri Lankan politics, if not decisive factors.

With the development of technology, the way we do everything get changed. One could ask the question, how effectively a politician can get the advantage of popularity of social network sites and online communities, when carrying out their election campaign. Already we can see some prominent politicians from both parties are putting some weight on social media. Sarath Fonseka fans page on Facebook gathered more than 60,000 fans during the last election, while Mahinda Rajapakshe fans page too gathered over 50,000 supporters. Some political parties have already started their Facebook campaigning for the upcoming general election.

The problem in using social media as a channel of communication in political marketing in Sri Lanka is the low rate of internet penetration. Although internet penetration levels in Colombo and sub urban areas are relatively high; the IT literacy and access to internet remains extremely low in far away places, where the decisive votes of a national election resides. On the other hand, a vast majority of over 400,000 Sri Lankans hooked up with Facebook are from the expatriate community around the world. They can create a sizable “buzz” on the internet (Facebook in particular) about politically important topics, but their influence in the final decision remains low in impact. This is a one explanation for the rather surprising (for Facebook Sri Lankans) result in the last Presidential election. Opinion polls and online discussions on Facebook suggested a landslide victory for the opposition candidate, giving high expectations to the supporters of that candidate. In the outcome of the election, the governing party candidate won it with an 18% majority, mainly with the help of landslide wins in far away remote places like Anurapapura, Kurunegala, Matara and Monaragala districts. Opinion of people living in these remote places was not sufficiently represented on Facebook or other online communities. Therefore, the question remains ‘if internet and social networks is an effective tool of political marketing in Sri Lanka?”

This question can be addressed by a strategic mix of both worlds; online and offline word of mouth. Without looking at Facebook and internet as stand-alone tools for conveying their political messages, politicians and parties can use such tools as “seeding grounds” for their offline word of mouth campaigns. Although low in quantities, Facebook still carries a considerable amount of “socially influential” Sri Lankans participating in conversations online. If a politician can project a favorable image to these socially influential characters on Facebook, they can be then used as “connecting nodes” in spreading the message into the offline communities.

Politicians can use options such as Facebook fan pages, Youtube channels, Twitter in creating a portfolio of social media presence. Regularly updating the FB fan page and Youtube channel with latest speeches they delivered in various events, photos of their development projects can create a “talking point” for the participants of those communities. Remember, when you ignite a “talking point” online; there is a high potential that the same point be repeated in offline conversations. For example a strong point someone make in favor of the development projects carried out by the government, may be repeated in offline conversations a several times more, by the people who read the online comment.

Always encouraging people to participate and express opinions on these Facebook fan pages is important. A dormant FB community with 50,000 supporters is as ineffective as another page with only 50 supporters. Therefore, the page admins must always try to ignite discussions, debates, and conversations. Allowing opposing party supporters to take part in the conversations is an effective way of igniting conversations.

A common question asked is “how do we attract more supporters to my FB page?”. Easiest way is to targeting an FB ad to Sri Lankans over 18 years of age. Unfortunately, FB doesn't support targeting at  users segmented by hometown . If that was possible, candidates would have reach the most relevant target audience at a lowest cost. Once you hit a critical mass of fans with FB ads (around 500); you can then encourage conversations among the existing members of the community. Throw in interesting “status updates” and controversial news, for them to debate. More vibrantly, the community engages on your page, more frequently the page will be suggested by Facebook to users with similar profiles. Therefore, an active FB page with 500 fans always has the potential of growing it to about 2000 within couple of days.If the "product" is really worth following; the page will spread like wildfire within no time.If it doesn't; check back if the "product" is really worth to be elected by people's vote :-)



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