A great deal has been written about the power of social media in politics. Everybody says the future is digital and that political parties ignore social media at their peril. But is social media really a game-changer? If so, how exactly is social media rewriting the rules of the political game? And how can political parties leverage social media to win votes?
Is social media a game-changer?
The short answer is: Yes, of course it is. Social media is revolutionising the way that we interact with each other. It is breaking down the distinction between public and private. We are constantly "available" to each other on social networks. Our social worth is increasingly defined by how many "friends" or "followers" we have and how many "retweets" or "likes" we get. People have been known to lose out on a job opportunity just because their Klout score was too low.[1
If the rules of social engagement are being rewritten, it follows that the rules of political engagement are changing too. But this doesn't mean that political communications professionals must throw out the rulebook and start again.
Any successful communication strategy - whether it is executed online or offline - needs to be "on-message, in-volume, over time." To be on-message, political parties need to define their message and stick to it. To be in-volume, parties need to find every opportunity to push that message so it becomes indelibly associated with the party. This needs to be done in a sustained manner, over time.
Social media does not change these fundamentals of political communication. What social media does is offer new and exciting ways for parties to get their message across to voters in a way that resonates with them.
In what way is social media a game-changer?
Answering this question requires an understanding of how social media is different from traditional media. There are two key differences:
The first difference is that the gatekeepers present in traditional media are absent on social media. The volume of a party's political communication in newspapers and on TV and radio is determined to a greater or lesser extent by who the reporters, editors and owners are. If they like you, your party will do well. If they don't, your party will struggle.
By removing these gatekeepers, social media frees up the democratic space. This is particularly important in countries where the state has an influence or even a controlling stake in the media.
The second difference is that social media is interactive. Audiences are no longer passive consumers of political information; they are active participants in a conversation. Opposition parties need to start the right conversations and manage those conversations in way that builds and sustains relationships with voters.
So, social media is a game-changer because it allows for direct and meaningful engagement with voters in a way that was not possible before. Opposition parties that understand this and leverage social media accordingly will do better than those who don't.
Social media as a game-changer in South Africa
Some people might argue that social media is not a game-changer in South Africa because too many people are without access to it. This is a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line, the most unequal society on the planet. The minority who live out their lives on Twitter and Facebook are literally - and virtually - in a different world.
The statistics appear to support this conclusion. Out of a population of around 45 million, only 5.3 million South Africans are active on Facebook and 2.4 million on Twitter.[2
] By contrast, 25 million South Africans get their news from radio, 22 million from television and 15 million from newspapers. On this analysis, political parties would do well to stay focused on their traditional media strategies and not worry too much about social media.
But this surface reading belies a tectonic shift taking place in South Africa and the continent at large - the mobile revolution. Today, 30 million South Africans use mobile phones - more than the number of people with access to radio or television. More people in Africa have access to a mobile phone than clean drinking water.[3
The advent of the mobile revolution is apparent in the way that South Africans are increasingly using their mobiles to interact with each other. Mxit - an instant messaging platform designed for low-end mobile phones - already has over 10 million users. According to a recent study, 7.9 million South Africans now access the internet on their mobile phones.[4
Internet access is set to expand rapidly as the cost of broadband, data and smart phones decreases. Already, both Facebook and Twitter are expanding in South Africa at a rate of around 100 000 users each a month. The urban to rural ratio of these social networking sites may be 2:1, but the rural population is catching up fast.[5
The mobile revolution redefining the way that parties interact with voters. Political parties in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent need to make sure they are part of the conversation.
How can opposition parties leverage social media effectively?
The rules of the political game are changing. Here are seven simple rules for opposition parties who want to win:1. Pay attention to your Klout score and how it is calculated
Understand the meaning of 'true reach' (how many people you actually engage with), 'amplification' (how often you influence the people you engage with) and 'network impact' (how influential your audience is). The more a party can improve these, the more influence or 'klout' it will have on social media.2. People do better than organisations on social networks
The Democratic Alliance Facebook page has over 21 000 fans, but the Leader of the party, Helen Zille, has more than 216 000. Over 13 000 people follow the DA's twitter account; Helen Zille has nearly 182 000 followers. The reason is simple: people use social networks primarily to connect with other people.3. Be responsive and authentic
People want to connect with real people in a meaningful way. And they quickly work out when the person controlling the account is not the person pictured in the avatar. This explains why Helen Zille's Klout score is 81, but President Jacob Zuma's is only 66. She tweets in her personal capacity and he doesn't. She is engaging and responsive on social media; he isn't.4. Go viral
Virality is to social media what newsworthiness is to traditional media. To maximise coverage on TV, radio and print, you have to be newsworthy. But to get volume on social networks, you need to get people to 'like', 'share' and 'retweet' what you say. And to get serious volume, you need to go viral.
One way to go viral is to be the first to break a story. Another is to present a new angle on a trending topic that nobody else has thought of. Pictures go viral which is why it is worth investing in infographics or taking photographs that people will share and retweet. A call to action - such as a question that demands an answer; or an opportunity to vote in a poll - can help a tweet or post go viral.5. Traditional content does not always work on social media
Don't use Facebook and Twitter just to upload press releases. Press releases are designed to get stories in newspapers and on television and radio. They seldom work outside that context. Your audience wants to have a conversation with you; reading your press release aimed at somebody else alienates them.6. Know your brand and target market
Bad political communication is saying whatever comes into your head on whatever issue takes your fancy. Good political communication drives a message that resonates with your target market on the issues they care about. This message needs to be developed based on an understanding of your brand offer and who your target market is.7. Invest time and resources in social media
Don't just set up a Twitter or Facebook account and hope they will take care of themselves. Political parties need a person in charge of social media - somebody to make sure that tweets are responded to, that the comments section is moderated, that content is uploaded regularly, that the various platforms are integrated. A good social media strategy, like a good communications strategy, requires time, effort and resources.
For opposition parties in South Africa and elsewhere, social media is unquestionably a game-changer. With the exponential growth of mobile, it won't be long before it is the only game in town.
Political parties who adapt to the new rules of the game will do better than others will. The challenge is to work out how best to communicate on-message, in-volume and over time on social networks. If opposition parties can meet this challenge, they may not be in opposition for very long.This is an edited extract of a paper presented by Gavin Davis at the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Social Media (R)evolutions International Online Conference on 25 September 2012.
Seth Stevenson, What your Klout score really means
, Wired 24 April 2012
 World Wide Worx, Social Media breaks barriers in SA
, 4 September 2012
 Jan Hutton (Nielsen), Mobile Phones Dominate in South Africa
, 30 September 2011
 SA's mobile mass market embraces web
, 18 May 2012
 World Wide Worx, Social Media breaks barriers in SA
, 4 September 2012