Social media and the 2008 Canadian federal election: still a long way to go

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The Canadian national election campaign is just under a week old, with five more weeks to go. But already it's looking like Canada's parties lag far behind their American counterparts in using the tools of social media to engage with voters.

While all five of the parties – the ruling Conservatives, the Liberals, the NDP, the Quebec-based Bloc Québécois and the Green Party – have more of a social presence than they did in the 2005-2006 campaign, they generally still use social media as a newish way to deliver the same kind of content they have in the past.

Blogging is surprisingly sparse, with the notable exception of the Green site, where any member can start a blog. Still, every campaign is represented on Facebook and YouTube, and everyone offers at least one RSS feed... although you may need to dig to find it. You'll find a roundup of the approaches of each party below.

By the way, while the parties aren't nearly as socially engaged as they could be, two of them have already been singed by the social media world:

  • The Conservatives hastily pulled down much of their sophomoric attack site on Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, including a Facebook parody page that ridiculed individual bloggers who are prominent supporters of the Liberal Party.
  • The Green Party not only booted a candidate for comments he'd left on their blog but saw a year-and-a-half-old comment from party leader Elizabeth May on a TV show come back to haunt them on YouTube – compounded by a firestorm over their ham-fisted legal threat against a blogger who posted the video on his site.

A little more participation in the technology and, more importantly, culture of social media could have saved each party some headaches this past week. (A few thicker skins at Green Party HQ and a lot fewer frat-boy hijinks in the Conservative war room wouldn't hurt, either.)

One other social media blip: a slew of commenters on Jack Layton's Facebook page, some describing themselves as New Democrats, demanded that he reverse his stand opposing May's participation in the election's televised debates. While his position did indeed change, there isn't any evidence that Facebook had much to do with that.

The roundup: For the party that should have had the most advance knowledge of anyone as to when the election would be, the Conservatives have a strangely underbaked social media approach - including an empty podcast page. They also feature a video podcast, but it's made up entirely of advertisements.

Conservative Party logoTheir site offers a comprehensive range of news feeds: for events, speeches and various flavours of articles and media releases. One glitch, though: those feeds aren't set up for one-click subscription - a single line of code in the web page would allow browsers to detect them automatically - adding a needless step or two to the process of keeping tabs on what the campaign's up to.

Their site also offers more links to various social media services than any other campaign: Facebook, Digg, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, FriendFeed and MySpace. But there isn't a lot of "there" there; the Digg page has only five pages bookmarked and all of nine fans. The YouTube page, for example, is nearly all ads (there's one clip from a sports broadcast) and the Twitter feed is only a few days old.

More significantly, the party minimizes interaction with its social media. Comments and ratings are disabled in YouTube, as are discussions and wall posts on their Facebook page. The Liberals have put a little more thought into their social media than the Conservatives, most evidently on their YouTube page. There, you'll find an ongoing video diary from the campaign trail (arguably the most engaging social media feature any of the campaigns offer), along with the usual ads, speeches and press statements - but, like the Conservatives, the Liberals don't want you rating or commenting on their campaign videos.

Liberal Party logoThe site offers a healthy range of news feeds (and it's set up for one-click subscription, thank you), although the list isn't quite as long as the Conservative site's. The same holds true for links to social media services; the Liberals offer Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and MySpace.

The Grits have let their hair down a little more, though. You can post to the Wall and join discussions on Dion's Facebook page, and although you can't rate or comment on their latest YouTube videos, many of their pre-election videos have comments enabled. And while the Twitter feed is only a few days old, the posts have more of a personal touch than the Conservatives'. Full disclosure: I have worked extensively with the NDP, in both online strategy and communications, but not on the current campaign or this site. The NDP is arguably more advanced than the other two major national parties - but still falling well short of where they could be. They, too, have a healthy range of news feeds with one-click subscriptions, but there appears to be no list of them anywhere (except for a link to one feed in the menu bar). Jack Layton's Twitter feed and Facebook page receive special prominence, and there are links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and FriendFeed.

New Democratic Party logoThe NDP has invested more effort on several of these sites. They rank between the Liberals and Conservatives on engaging YouTube content, adding speeches and media statements to the mix but without anything like the daily campaign diary; on the other hand, they allow users to rate and comment on their videos. Their Twitter feed has several times the followers that the Conservatives' and Liberals' do, even though it's only a few days older. And Layton leads the pack on Facebook with more than 15,000 supporters (and a page that allows posting).

So where do they fall short of the mark? The same place every party does: engagement. Nearly all of what they're doing is pushing messages out the door; there isn't much invitation to the public to join a conversation. Nor is there a consistent sense of a real person behind the keyboard (apart from the odd "I" in the Twitter feed).

(Sept. 18 - See update below: they've just done something pretty big.) (Bloc Québécois): Oddly enough this is the only major campaign site with an actual blog - including public comments and a newsfeed. Even more surprising, that's the only feed you'll find listed on a site that seems determined to bury its other social media features.

BQ logoThe Bloc has a Facebook page for Gilles Duceppe, although the link isn't very prominent; wall posts are permitted, but the discussion boards are switched off. There's also a well-stocked YouTube channel – but if the link is anywhere on their site, I couldn't find it. Comments and ratings are enabled, and several of their videos are more engaging that straight-up ads or press statements. In one case, a candidate walks through her campaign office, introducing her staff. The Green Party, with no history of electing MPs, is the party with the least to lose and the most to gain from social media – hence they have arguably the most open site of any party, at least as far as blogging goes.

Green Party logoLeader Elizabeth May blogs occasionally; so can any Green Party member... and many do, in a thriving online discussion. But that openness is also curiously closed. While members of the public can read, they not only can't blog (which may be a reasonable limitation, although Barack Obama's campaign has no trouble with throwing their doors open to the world), they can't even comment – unlike, say, on the BQ's blog.

There's no sign of RSS feeds (except for recent blog posts). But while you may not find the link on the campaign site, there's a YouTube channel, and a Facebook group for the party and a page for May (wall and discussion boards enabled).

On the whole, you won't find much social media innovation happening on the parties' campaign sites. But the door that opened a crack in the last election has opened a little more this time around.

In some ways, that's understandable. The political side of Canada's social media world still isn't as well-developed as that in the United States, so a larger investment of money and time (which is at a premium for even the best-funded campaign) isn't as much of a slam dunk.

Yet there's a good case to make for taking a leap of faith. By holding off on a genuinely participatory online campaign, the parties are missing out on the proven power of online collaboration to do everything from raising funds to reaching voters via trusted friends and neighbours.

Not that they may have the option much longer. Canada's political parties may not be leading the charge into social media, but with the public's growing expectations of more meaningful engagement and conversation, they may have no choice but to follow the voters there.

Update: What a difference a few days make. The NDP just launched a site called The Orange Room, "the one-stop shop for anyone looking to find - and share - digital media related to the New Democrat campaign in this election. Videos, photos, news, blog posts and more - whether you saw it online or created it yourself, this is your chance to be a part of the campaign." This is game-changing stuff - at least for social media in Canadian politics.

Bonus update: Turns out Kate Trgovac had her own review of the parties' social media ventures a while ago, and she's just updated it... along with a great set of links to their various properties out there in socialspace.


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