India Elections’09 2.0: did online campaigns & social media work?

by Dina on May 19, 2009 · 14 comments

in Indian Culture,Participatory Media,Social Media

The verdict is out. An article at Business Standard (link shared with me by @aparnaray who writes Newsmericks and who encouraged me to blog my thoughts) called Impassive Indians reveals findings from a study conducted by IMRB International on the impact of the political campaigns on youth in India. What’s evident from this study is that the messaging of the online campaigns from political parties did not reach nor resonate with voters.

How much influence did the social and political awareness campaigns have on young urban voters?  Not much, says a recent IMRB International survey. Carried out between May 1 and May 5, it sought to gauge the impact of the recent social and political campaigns on individuals aged 18 to 29 in socio-economic categories A and B from four metros — Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Low recall
The revelations are startling. Only 18 per cent respondents could spontaneously recall the Jaago Re campaign and 6 per cent recalled Lead India. The celebrity-ridden Kuchh Nahin Ho Sakta (Nothing can happen) campaign, which starred leading Bollywood actors like Abhishek Bachchan and Priyanka Chopra, had a low recall of just two per cent.

and a more culture-specific analysis on ‘consumption’ of advertising:

More than the social awareness campaigns, it was the advertisement campaigns launched by political parties like the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party which had better recall amongst the youth, according to the survey. While 67 per cent recalled the Congress campaign, 53 per cent recognised BJP’s campaign. More respondents remember Congress and BJP advertisements on traditional media (98 per cent for Congress and 94 per cent for BJP) than on other forms like hoardings, direct mailers, radio and the Internet. The message for media planners of the political parties is clear.

Few were aware that political parties have a web presence and fewer visited these sites, the survey reported. Only about a third of the respondents knew that the Congress and BJP have their own websites. About a tenth and fourth visited the Congress and BJP websites, respectively. Worse, only about one per cent visited websites dedicated to political heavyweights like Lal Krishna Advani, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

Clearly, political parties, despite having made augmented efforts this time to reach young voters through the Internet, did not generate much response. “Personally, I would see them (websites) as campaigns built to promote a party or an individual to power. There was no call to action,” Potharaju says.

Joshi, however, attributes it to the way Indians take to information, “As a culture, we don’t have the tendency to look for information through the written word. Ours is a culture that follows the oral tradition. We want the moti baat (the essence), which is why TV ads draw much better response than websites.” However, if (Barack) Obama would have been quoted as saying that he liked Advani’s blog, everyone in our cities would have read Advani’s blog, Joshi quips.

Reiteration that political campaigns online were ineffective for the most part, as they did not have the right messaging, idiom and call-to-action. Some, like the BJP’s campaign, were were visible, even in-your-face, but they failed to resonate with voters. This indicates problems with both, their tactics & message, as many in the Indian blogosphere and Twitterville have expressed.

Rahul Jauhari, in his well-written post Zero for Advani 2.0 analyzes this:

Coming to the point, the BJP was all over the web this time.
Zillions of banners across the www.
The new web savvy face of the party.
A clear attempt to connect with the youth of the country.

It didn’t work.

There are plenty of post mortems floating around by now.
I have 3 cents to add to the same.

  1. Just because you are present on a younger forum doesn’t mean you will be seen as young. I mean I just can’t see respected Shri Advaniji as the face of new India. Sorry.
  2. You don’t barge into social media and expect to be welcomed. You need to make yourself part of someone’s social world first. And then ask for favors.
  3. Before you put the bucks behind the message, put some thought behind the message itself.

I guess you can’t just do an Obama and expect a landslide victory when you don’t have a credible, powerful clarion call as Obama had in the first place.

I also believe you don’t advertise on Social Networking sites.
Social Networking sites are like people’s homes.
Nobody wants an ad in his/her private space.

Mahesh Murthy of Pinstorm adds his perspective on why the BJP campaign was neither relevant, nor persuasive (classic measures of evaluating campaigns 🙂 that we tend to forget about in thie Social Media world):

An online group is a platform to gather people, but that is not enough. People have to be commandeered on the platform to do something concrete to generate value, says Mahesh Murthy, founder of Pinstorm, a digital advertising firm. “The Indian political party online groups seem to have gathered people but are not directing them to action except in stray cases such as Meera Sanyal in South Mumbai. I would largely discount the BJP and Congress online groups for now as mostly valueless.

Whether or not a campaign fulfilled the objectives it set out to accomplish is a measure of its efficacy, says Mr. Murthy. This can be measured with metrics such as engagement (amount of time and depth of user’s involvement in the message), brand impact (visibility of the message to target user), clicks, sign-ups, ‘viralness’ (how much users spread the message) and persuasion scores (measuring how persuasive the message is), he adds.

In the specific case, say, of the BJP’s campaign, it seems to have several objectives,” says Mr. Murthy. He outlines three of those — to negate the impact on youth of Narendra Modi and project L.K. Advani as the sole BJP leader; to project the 81-year-old Mr. Advani as a relevant leader to an audience of urban 18 to 35-year-olds; and to project the BJP as the ideological choice at the polls.

He adds that the campaign has done really well on the first two but failed in the third objective. “The campaign merely projects a leader and doesn’t tackle the issues the audience cares about — from Babri to Ram Sene and more.” In advertising terms the campaign has established high reach and frequency levels and is very visible online – but it probably has done very little in the persuasion scores,” he says, adding that it had succeeded in neutralising Modi’s appeal among a section of the public and projected just one leader of the BJP.

Merely transposing years and years of traditional advertising experience onto the web does not work. Like Rahul, I was absolutely appalled to have Advani’s smiling face cluttering up my blog was a huge no-no.  Shubham at Strat.In says Political parties should continue online campaigns, and makes suggestions for the road ahead for political parties considering online political campaigns:

Why did the campaign fail? I believe that although the campaigns were successful in catching people’s attention once, but they did not convey any message to the public. If we look at the advertisement which was displayed  almost through the campaigns by BJP and Congress we see their leaders covering the screen with their political campaign statement covering the rest. What was missing was the issues they wanted people to read and discuss. People on the net are not looking for just advertisements but they want more. They already know about both the political parties but they need more information for reasons to vote for them, and this information was not passed on to them. The campaign medium was correct but the strategy was wrong.

The Road Ahead: Since the elections are now over I don’t see any advertisements from any political parties. Their online activity has also slowed down considerably. Political parties need to maintain their online campaigns (in a subdued form) for the next 5 years. Interaction of leaders through online medium, informing citizens about issues (like black money, reservations, government projects & policies), getting citizens feedback through online polls and comments, forming an active online support group, and many more activites are possible. In the next elections online campaign just might become more important. Political parties should not let the spending they have done on their online campaigns go waste, they have already built a brand and now they need to maintain it and increase the interaction.

When the common man will feel empowered by a political party, when he will feel a political party is listening to him through the net then they will definitely support them.

So, did they work – perhaps not. Can they work – absolutely.

The interest of some political parties in building online campaigns is a great sign. This too is a good sign with the Friends of the BJP asking openly at their blog what should we do, right after the defeat of the BJP/NDA.  My suggestion to them would be focus on meaningful outreach where you bring in more into the fold, rather than holding conversations with the committed! Talk with, rather than talk to people in their own spaces.

Overall, I do believe that political parties and their social media ‘experts’ need to have a much better understanding of the conversational and social nature of the medium (it’s not called Social Media for nothing!!).  While there are issues with the messaging, there are also issues with the tactics of the campaigns. Using classical push-advertising, one-t0-many tactics on the web will not work. Conversations matter, as value flows in webs. There are new emergent ways to assessing social media campaigns that include both quantitative and qualitative measures of engagement, participation, influence, stickiness, imagination and energy.

Last thought – does anyone know how effective the mobile phone and SMS campaigns have been?


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shubham May 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Thanks for the link. Loved your collection over the topic.

The advertising on internet, television, and radio was extensive. Though I did not really receive any telephone calls / sms from political parties.

Mobile might have been better with more target audience (Mr Mahesh Murthy pointed this out on Twitter)

2 AJ May 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm

the problem is “respected” advanijee……
yesterday it was pujya-pitajee-vajpayeeji
tomorrow other myopic short-sighted US against THEM politics of the hateful rants from pathshala of rss will surface and use more technology/social media …like ignorant impotents,who operate on
anti-social anti-constitutional behaviour.

3 Mayank Dhingra May 19, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Nice post Dina.

The online efforts by BJP definitely got them visibility but they failed to evoke any connection for numerous reasons, including the push/broadcast approach of campaign, inability to relate to the leader behind the campaign and maybe to the parties agenda, lack of simple yet concrete message etc.

I feel unless the core offering is strong/desirable, not even social media can be of much help.

4 Nilu May 19, 2009 at 1:21 pm

“Can they work – absolutely.”

How did you arrive at “absolutely”?

5 Dina May 19, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Nilu – vannakam!! Engaging with the bourgeoisie now 🙂

Absolutely … because of the following reasons:

– there are 45 million active internet users in India. Small number. But growing – growth from Sept 07-08 is 30% acc. to IMRB International stats
– many of them are already having conversations online in some form or the other
– they’re easier to reach, segment and target by advertisers and marketers and campaigners (incl. political) in a focused fashion
– cost of joining the conversation already happening isn’t high – entry barriers are low – it needs understanding of the space and commitment
– setting objectives and measures for what you want to achieve is doable and critical – this is one area where many fail as they still believe in old metrics of pageviews, CPC etc.
– it’s a social medium and we’re all human beings first. word of mouth, feedback loops whether formal or informal have been a part of our behaviour for centuries. we building relationships too. this medium lends itself to all of them quite nicely.
– it offers them a medium to ‘listen’ too – like a research lab
– it can be forgiving as long as you build trust through transparent open conversations
– speed too is a great benefit – you can build momentum quickly and make course corrections quickly too
– it’s a multi-dimensional medium so you can chat, tweet, blog, network, podcast, video-cast etc etc etc. Each of these is not just about ‘publishing online’ but also engaging with audiences

Under the following conditions:

– that they first understand the social nature of this medium
– that they appreciate it and are willing to interact as human beings and not talking heads
– that they engage in conversations with their ‘audiences’ – mere push advertising that shifts online will not work
– that they integrate a strong message with the medium so they can ‘talk with’ rather than ‘talk to’ and join the conversations and really listen
– have a clear agenda that is relevant to all the energy and captures the imagination of people online

With the following result:

– build political awareness and consciousness among the online population
– you build your listening posts for a portion of your electorate; which helps you build empathy with them; make your message to them more relevant …

I could go on … maybe you’ve sparked another blogpost with your question!!! Thanks for making me think as always.

6 Dina May 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Mayank thanks for your comment. I agree – the message was really a negative one. Or not credible nor relevant.

Shubham – if you come across any mobile figures, do share!

7 Danish May 19, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Hi Dina,
as usual.. nice post.. 🙂

IMHO the campaign failed for two major reasons..

1. As you have mentioned.. there was visiblity but no message was conveyed.

2. The internet penetration in Indian masses is still pretty low.

I’d like to elaborate more on the point 2 as the point 1 has been already covered nice by you 🙂

Internet penetration in India is not as high as it is in the U.S. The numbers are improving, but we should always keep in mind that the majority in the new adopters are school and college going students and not too many grown ups. Students use the internet for various purposes, but they dont contribute to elections in anyway at all. There is still a vast majority of rural adults who are unaware of the internet or anything put on it, so they remain unaffected as well.

I am sure it is a good medium for a lot of businesses to reach to thier potential clients, but with elections, its still too far feteched to consider as an important campaign medium.

8 Nilu May 19, 2009 at 4:56 pm


There is a fundamental truth to political communication: it’s never aimed at the society’s elite.

Trust me, despite what South Bombay implying otherwise, in India the use of Internet pretty much makes one an elite. Which would support the theory that websites in Indian elections are irrelevant and will remain so for the next election as well.

9 rahul jauhari May 19, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Hi Dina, thanks for the link.
Your writeup was very interesting indeed 🙂

10 Dina May 19, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Hi Danish and Nilu – I agree the online population is really small still. But it’s growing – see figures mentioned in an earlier comment – Sept 08 figures are at 4.5 million active internet users and a growth rate of 30% over the last year.

Still very much an urban phenomenon of course. But clearly not just the elite nor the South Bombay stereotype you obssess over Nilu! Check out the icube report at this page – which was carried out across town classes in urban india – 30 cities: 20,000 Households, 90,000 individuals, 1000 SMEs and 500 Cyber Cafes.

11 gregorylent May 20, 2009 at 12:05 am

loudspeakers on autorickshaws and small lorries, and banners and cutouts … how new media do you want it?

oh yeah, sacks full of rupees ..

12 Sundar May 20, 2009 at 12:16 am

Wish all these “experts” did these wonderful analyses before the results were out. Hindsight is so blah. It’s like astrologers saying that they knew Jupiter would make BJP lose. Next time, please publish the analysis before the results. Then, I can believe that you have some expertise in web 2.0. Now that you have read my comment you are free to delete it. Which I am sure you will.

13 Dina May 20, 2009 at 12:32 am

Gregory … lost in translation??? there are many India’s. Accept that or you will be very lost while here. Of course there are rickshaws and loudspeakers and small lorries and banners and cutouts – certainly things that strike foreigners first. They just weren’t intended to be the focus of this blog post which talks to an active online population, which is sizable by any standard – you cannot wish away 45 million active internet users in India to suit your new-found notions of what is India.

14 Dina May 20, 2009 at 12:33 am

Sundar .. thanks, you do make a point – it does appear to be a post-mortem of sorts. Still, lots of this was discussed in great detail in conversations on Twitter long before the results were out – I don’t know whether you’re aware of them. That I choose to blog them now is my prerogative. As your beliefs are yours! And why on earth do you perceive that I would delete your comment???

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