By Antony Young*
Winston Peters, the grand master of creating media headline mountains out of non-event molehills, uncharacteristically chose to quietly launch his very own Instagram account earlier this month. You might ask, what’s the big deal of him signing up to the photo sharing social media network with millions of others who feel the need to upload pictures of the dessert they’re about to eat?
While perhaps not newsworthy, I can tell you it’s a significant move that the leader of a party that derives about 40% of its votes from over 65s is upping his social media presence going into an important election year. The US presidential election showed us just how influential social media can be in steering the agenda for an election. Mr Peters picked Trump to win. He and the other party leaders must surely have followed not just the outcome, but also the tactics employed by the controversial businessman to get him into the White House.
Social media has played a prominent role in the past three US presidential elections. In 2008 Barack Obama’s team used social media expertly to mobilise young first time voters to get behind him, and counter large private campaign funders of his opponents by targeting millions of small donors to fund his election campaign. In 2012, it was social media that handed Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign a decisive blow when his ill-advised 47% comment at a private function was captured on video and posted on YouTube that plagued his campaign. Twitter lit up during the influential Presidential debates to amplify his misplaced references to “binders of women.”
Meanwhile Obama employed social media deftly to encourage his supporters’ Facebook friends in key swing states such as Ohio to register and vote early, thereby increasing voter turnout of favourable voter groups.
But last year we saw a shift where Facebook, Twitter and Instagram become more pervasive digital versions of talk back radio or letters to editors. When I lived in the US, I worked in a Democrat town and resided in a Republican neighbourhood. In my 10 years there, I could count maybe just a couple of occasions ever hearing anyone overtly express their political views. In America, politics just isn’t seen as appropriate discussion at dinner parties or workplace conversation. Contrast this with the social media conversation this last election cycle. The volume of political posts has been deafening. Anti-Trump, pro-Trump, anti-Hillary, pro-Hillary; 2016 pivoted to where it became acceptable online to voice what remains socially unacceptable in-person.
The other trend while not new that did pick up momentum in this last election, is social media’s role in initiating election news on and in the mainstream media. Trump regularly tweeted in the early hours of the morning only for news outlets to pick up on this and feed that day’s news cycle. It worked to keep him in the news as the major media companies couldn’t resist covering his every word. It has become common place now that the largely under-resourced news teams find quoting Twitter or publishing a photo op on Instagram as easy and efficient news reporting.
While Facebook and other social media is eating into the legacy media companies’ audiences and advertising incomes, they have also become important venues for them to gain audiences. A study last year by the Pew Research Center revealed that 44% of Americans got their election news from social media sites, up from just 17% in 2012. Consequently, newspaper and cable news organisations discovered that programming content that feeds partisan viewpoints provides a boost financially for their companies. The right leaning FOX News had a bumper last year and in the weeks immediately following Trump’s election in November. And paid subscriptions at the liberal leaning New York Times increased tenfold compared with the previous year.
So what can we expect in New Zealand heading into our September General Election? The likes of NZME, Fairfax and our broadcasters aren’t immune to the same commercial and audience challenges affecting US media. Twice as many New Zealanders check-in to Facebook each day than read an actual daily newspaper in this country. All my 25+ years of marketing experience reinforce that word of mouth advertising is so much more effective than any TV ad. Social media is a powerful word of mouth platform for marketers, punters and politicians alike. Every vote this year is going to be important. Expect to see 2017 be the social media election. Watch your newsfeed!
*Antony Young is co-founder of The Digital Café, a firm that specialises in social and digital marketing for SMEs. He spent the last ten years living in the United States as CEO of several advertising and media agency firms before returning back to New Zealand last year.