Dissecting Ontario political parties’ online outreach

Our experts weigh in on which leader is winning in social and why

With a provincial election approaching, Ontario’s party leaders have amped up their web and social media efforts to engage voters.

“Everyone is trying to do what the Barack Obama campaign did so successfully in 2008 and 2012, and that’s build a relationship with supporters through social media in a very cost-effective way,” said Daniel Tisch, CEO of Argyle Communications.

The NDP, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives all have an active presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, while the NDPs and Liberals have also created Instagram accounts for their leaders. But who’s winning likes and hearts? Marketing looks at how the three primary parties’ digital efforts stack up.

NDP (Website)

Andrea Horwath’s Facebook page – 22,710 followers
Party Facebook page – 4,720 followers
Andrea Horwath’s Twitter account – 28,600 followers

How it’s engaging: The NDP has focused on building leader Andrea Horwath’s profile on social media rather than the party’s, a strategy that may help the it connect with voters on an emotional level, said Colin Delany, editor of Epolitics.com, a digital strategy consultant for politics in the U.S. “Andrea Horwath is doing a great job – she’s featuring volunteers, which is always a great tactic, has lots of photos of people involved with her and talking with her,” he said. “Her page is very well run.”

Tisch noted that the first thing you see on the NDP website (like the PC website) is a call to “join the campaign” by entering your email address and postal code. “That gives the party the opportunity to create a relationship with that person,” said Tisch.

What it could be doing better: Delany rates the NDP’s website as just “okay.” While they make good use of the splash screen to intercept visitors and asks them for their email address, as Obama did in 2012, Delany said he’d feature the email signup prompt prominently on every page.

PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVES (Website)

Tim Hudak’s Facebook page – 31,600 followers
Party’s Twitter account 9,380 followers
Tim Hudak’s Twitter account – 30,000 followers

How it’s engaging: “If you take the strategy of influencing the news cycle, hands down in the early campaign, the PCs have won that battle,” said Tisch. “It reflects a clear strategy to define themselves through policy. The slogan, ‘Ontario. Working. Better.’ is the first thing you see on their site… They’re anxious to show that they have a well thought-out plan and a leader who means what he says, so all communications flow from that.”

Gaffes: PC leader TimHudak was kicked off the TTC for attempting to hold a press conference on a subway train to announce new transit plans. The TTC said candidates can hold events outside stations but are not allowed to do so on platforms or in vehicles. In a tweet, the party blamed the union: “CUPE workers stop Tim Hudak photo op on the TTC. They are only interested in themselves, not fixing transit for commuters.”

Tisch said the message may have been intentional, “or genuinely somebody saying something inappropriate in anger and looking bad as a result.”

“For people who are hard-core Tory supporters and believe there is a union and media conspiracy to defeat them, that [tweet] could be helpful,” said Tisch. “But for people who are more flexible partisans, they’ll probably say that’s a bit inappropriate.”

What it could be doing better: The PC’s website has no links to social media, despite the fact that Hudak is very active on both Facebook and Twitter. “That’s weird. Very unusual these days,” Delany said. “I’d be curious to know the strategy, because the rule of thumb is to make it as easy as possible for people to follow you through the channels they prefer to use.”

LIBERAL (Website)

Kathleen Wynne’s Facebook page – 22,940 followers
Party Facebook page – 4,890 followers
Kathleen Wynne’s Twitter account – 48,800 followers

How it’s engaging: LeaderKathleen Wynne is very active on Instagram, sharing photos from the campaign trail. Though she has just 700 followers, her account demonstrates how to connect with people quickly using images.“Photos are a very powerful way of connecting with people,” said Delany. “People form that emotional connection to a face they see in a photograph. It’s an instant emotional connection.”

That said, Delany notes the number of people she’s reaching is just a drop in the bucket. “When you’re talking about ruthless politics, are the voters they need to reach on Instagram?” he asks. “I’d really ask why they’re using it, what’s the strategy behind it.”

Wynne also did an “Ask Me Anything” session on the social news site Reddit, a tactic everyone from Obama to Zach Braff has taken. “You’re seeing this more and more,” Delany said. “If you use it well, it can be a good strategy.” 
However, he also warned that Reddit can be extra critical if a politician dodges questions or avoids difficult topics. “Reddit is a particular audience and they’re going to be harsh on you if you don’t step up to the plate and deliver them some substance,” he said.

Gaffes: This spring, voters and the press called out several Liberal candidates for making sexist comments on Facebook. On social media, gaffes like these are common. If they are a one-off for a politician or party, they might not cause much harm, according to Delany. But if they fit into a pattern, it can be much more serious for a campaign. That’s exactly what the Liberals faced after more than one candidate landed in hot water.

“Look, we’re not talking Anthony Weiner territory – it’s not stalking someone on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s being an idiot and revealing yourself to be a bit of a sexist dinosaur,” said Delany. “And that is not going to help you.”

What it could be doing better: “The site feels like a throwback to about six years ago,” Delany said, explaining it’s competent, but has a dated feel. He added that there is not an easy-to-use dashboard – a standard of the last few years that’s employed by both the PC and the NDP. The Liberal site, Delany added, is also lacking the explicit calls to action that political parties have found instrumental in convincing visitors to get involved.

But Tisch noted the Liberal site is the most visual. “You see fast-sliding images, such as Tim Hudak’s ‘Million Cuts plan’ and Andrea Horwath: ‘Not for Real,’ interspersed with images that show Kathleen Wynne in a positive light,” said Tisch. “You just have to be on it for 20 seconds and right away you’ve seen three or four messages. They want to get you engaged and differentiate themselves from that very first moment.”

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