What UK Politicians Can Learn About Online Communities

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by: Matt Rhodes

There was an interesting piece in the FT this weekend, discussing how the UK’s political parties could learn from their US counterparts. It is party conference season in the UK at the moment – members of each of the main political parties will be meeting at various seaside resorts around the country to discuss policy and process.

They are a time when the core, keen supporters and activists get a chance to get their voices heard at the conference and at fringe events. They should also be a time when parties recruit and retain a wide base of supporters.

The FT article discusses how parties appeal to these two, often diverse, membership groups:

Keeping activists happy while remaining a credible electoral force is a tight-rope act, and technology is changing this problem in the UK and US – but in different ways.

We have written before about how Obama is using social networking and online communities in the US to build a groundswell of support. After this post, there was a discussion on e-mint, the community manager mailing list) about how politicians and political supporters in the UK are behind the US in terms of making use of social networking tools like this.

Obama’s success is in making it easy for a large community to build, each donating small amounts of money. The community is funding his campaign in this way and he is allowing this mass of smaller supporters to get involved and to be part of his movement. As the FT notes there is another advantage of building a large community of support in this way:

Being less reliant on the usual suspects also makes it easier for candidates to move towards the popular centre ground. It can only be good news if candidates are not captive to their party faithful.

In the UK, however, politicians and parties are yet to truly engage people in this way. They may allow people to become their friends on Facebook or other sites, they may ask you to make a pledge as a supporters, but there is no way in which they are really harnessing the power of the wider community. Rather, the most successful use of social networks in the UK has been by the small group of powerful activists. It is their blogs that are most read, and they who are building followers online.

So in the US, social networking has allowed the broader base of supporters to be heard and so allowed politicians to pitch to this more central ground than to more extreme views of a small number of activists. In the UK, by contrast, it is the activist supporters who are most active online, who have the most followers and attract the most support.

This difference is fundamental. For the online communities we build for brands and organisations at FreshNetworks, there are usually two broad types:

  1. a group of your brand advocates, maybe as a specific online research community, to help amplify word of mouth, to reward them, or to involve them in innovation or co-creation
  2. a larger group of consumers or individuals to gain insight into what they think, to help crowd-source or co-create new products, marketing or approaches, for innovation, to build advocacy or just as a way of engaging a wider group of people in a sustainable way.

UK political parties are very much in the second type, with the US in the first. Both approaches are good and valid uses of social media and online communities. Both can be successful. But in terms of building sustainable engagement across your consumer base, the latter is perhaps of more use. I’d like to see UK politicians and political parties truly engaging people in this way, in a sustainable and broad manner. As this weekend’s FT article says:

Online campaigning has been an enormous success in the US, engaging millions of people – and maybe even solving the political funding dilemma. UK parties – wrestling with the same problems – should consider their example.

Some more reading

Original Post: http://blog.freshnetworks.com/2008/09/what-uk-politicians-can-learn-about-online-communities/