LS Polls: Political parties draw out social media & advtg battle plans
The battle between the Congress, BJP & AAP is being fought out as senior admen & media planners join the fray to manage their social media & advertising strategy ahead of the Lok Sabha elections
Published - 12-March-2014
Will being aggressive on social media and a campaign based on modest resources help the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) win the forthcoming elections?
Will Narendra Modi’s portrayal of a tech-savvy persona in the media manage to erase his authoritarian image?
Will Rahul Gandhi’s absence from social media prove to be fatal for the Congress in the long run?
These and other worries trouble senior admen and media planners nowadays as they have been called upon to manage the advertising strategy of the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the May 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Even as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) relies on the wisdom of volunteers to counter the two, the poll drama has moved to the Internet. Taking a cue from US President Barack Obama’s election campaign handbook, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was the first to embrace social media, perhaps one of the primary reasons that he has attracted positive headlines. While the BJP has been present on the World Wide Web for a year now, they have largely been using the medium to broadcast their message, failing to utilize the platform in its truest essence, that of 2.0 – interaction and engagement. The content found on the party and Modi’s social profiles are either bland excerpts from speeches or simply promotional updates leaving little for citizens to discuss. The Congress, late to join the Internet party for various reasons, is now heavily investing in the medium. Although Rahul Gandhi, the party’s probable Prime Ministerial candidate, is yet to make his debut on Twitter and Facebook, the Congress, like the BJP, is solely using the platform as a broadcast tool, managing to engage supporters and haters alike. Will the Congress reign for a third year? Will Modi achieve his India 272+ aim? Or is India ready for AAP’s revolutionary politics? While these answers are best left to time, we take a look at the election campaigns of the three parties.
Indian National Congress
The common man or more popularly the “Aam Aadmi” had been at the centre of the Indian National Congress campaign for two consecutive elections. In 2004, the party’s slogan was “Congress Ka Haath Aam Aadmi Ke Saath” to include the growing middle class population in its message. Another slogan during the same election, “Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila?” countered the opposition, NDA’s “India Shining” message. In 2009, the slogan “Aam Aadmi Ke Badhte Kadam, Har Kadam Par Bharat Buland” focused on the ruling party’s achievements and progress of the people. The party went on to purchase the rights of AR Rahman’s “Jai Ho” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire for its campaign song as it had a high recall value. Ranjan Bargotra, President, Crayons Advertising, which worked with the Congress on its 2009 campaign says, “The campaign spoke about the good that the party had done in its tenure. The UPA had fared well, there had been development and there were barely any negative issues to tackle, which is why they came back to power comfortably.”
Cut to present
While Congress has let go of its lucky “Aam Aadmi” phrase (for obvious reasons), the party has stuck with the word “Haath” which also refers to its symbol. The primarily monochrome Print and Out Of Home advertisements have Rahul Gandhi in the middle backed by a group of Indians, a strategic mix of genders, communities and age groups. Each of the advertisements carries a different message such as, “Kattar Soch Nahi, Yuva Josh” or “Rajniti Nahi Kaajniti” depending on the target group and issue but the main slogan of the 2014 campaign remains, “Har Haath Shakti, Har Haath Tarakki”. The television commercials and radio spots have Congress youth workers voicing the beliefs and intent of their leader Rahul Gandhi. It is hard to miss the party’s campaign launched in mid-January this year. With the number of challenges the Congress faces today, charting out a campaign strategy has become a much more daunting task, says an industry source. “In the last few years, the party has attracted a lot of negative attention and criticism from the media. During the previous elections, the actual campaign was launched barely two to three weeks before the actual elections. The fact that this year the campaign was launched much before the polls goes to show the magnitude of the challenge Congress is grappling with today.”
The 2014 poll campaign is trying to convey the message that the path to progress lies in the hands of many, and not with any one person.
While other parties are aggressively present on the Internet, the Congress has strategically kept its distance from the medium. Commenting on this, Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi says, “Ours is a very volunteer-driven campaign. We are not undermining the importance of social media in today’s day and age but we are not focusing on it as our core campaign strategy either. We have gone across Tier II and Tier III cities to meet our volunteers and party workers and teach them the basics of social media and how the platform can be effectively utilized, be it Facebook, Twitter or blogging. Informing our own workers and making them active on these platforms is how the party looks at its social media strategy, so to say. The biggest thing as far as the Congress is concerned is ground connect. Apart from this, our communication matrix includes print, broadcast as well as radio.”
Bharatiya Janata Party
After NDA’s ambitious “India Shining” campaign in 2004 which focused on India’s international image instead of internal issues, it is time for the BJP to tread carefully. In 2009, the campaign’s core strategy was to divert attention from the party’s communalist image. The slogan, “Mazboot Neta Nirnayak Sarkar”, promoted the then Prime Ministerial candidate, LK Advani and aimed to project him as a capable candidate in comparison to the incumbent Manmohan Singh. BJP also launched several counter campaigns to the ruling party such as “Bhay Ho”, a parody to INC’s “Jai Ho” campaign song. The 2009 election campaign largely highlighted the failures of the UPA government in addressing issues such as terrorism, unemployment and inflation. The party reached out to its voters using SMS, tapping into the then pool of 35 crore mobile subscribers.
Cut to present
Although BJP has been promoting itself aggressively in various ways for the past few months, the opposition party is yet to roll out its Print and Television campaign. Not very different from 2009, BJP’s 2014 campaign focuses on its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. This time the slogan is more specific, a simple but direct “Modi for PM”. Commenting on the campaign slogan, Vinit Goenka, National Co-Convenor, BJP IT Cell says, “Through this slogan we are trying to communicate Modi’s proven credentials. It stands for an individual who has been around in terms of governance, he is a person of accomplishments and the right one to take the country forward.” BJP Mumbai Secretary, Vivekanand Gupta adds, “Since Modi has been named the Prime Ministerial candidate, naturally all the campaign strategies will revolve around him.” Along with the slogan, BJP launched the “One Note, One Vote” initiative as a part of its campaign. In an attempt to assess support and reach out to at least 10 crore families, party workers will go from door to door collecting ‘one note’ of denominations between Rs 10 to Rs 1,000. Continuing to embrace technology like no other party, BJP also launched the “India 272+” app, available for free on Android’s Play Store, which is an open forum for volunteers enabling discussions and exchange of ideas. The campaign and its initiatives surely point towards a party that is very confident of achieving the 272+ number in the Lok Sabha elections.
Aam Aadmi Party
Until a few months back, the results of the 2014 elections seemed quite predictable, but that changed as soon as the Aam Aadmi Party announced its intentions of contesting at the national level. The party that can be the subject of several case studies has only one strategy for its campaign – revolution. Solely dependent on volunteer support, the party isn’t taking the help of communication agencies to chart out sophisticated campaigns. AAP Maharashtra Secretary, Preeti Sharma Menon says, “We rarely take help from professionals who are not actually involved with the party. It may put us at a disadvantage, but we do not have the resources to hire agencies. Even if we could afford it, our primary requirement would still be to have people who are committed to the cause.”
Technology has undoubtedly played a large role in helping AAP reach where it is today. However the reach is limited to the urban population aged 18 to 45. At the national level, there is still a large section of the population that needs to be reached. Menon says, “It’s a myth that there’s a huge gap between the rural and urban population in Maharashtra because 46% of the state is urban. They have been in the grip of politicians and now the people want to break free which is where the real revolution is required.”
Manisha Lath Gupta, who quit Axis Bank as the Chief Marketing Officer to join the party says, “Aam Aadmi Party’s strengths lie in its on ground mobilisation. The party believes in being true representatives of the people. Our leaders and volunteers are emerging from among the electorate. As a result, reaching out and connecting with people is much easier than it would be for a ‘top down’ driven party.” Talking about the party’s campaign strategy, Menon says, “We are definitely targeting the population under 45 because those are the people who are demanding a change.” AAP may have an appealing message but their means are limited, continues Menon, “We cannot afford out of home, television and print. We are largely reaching out via on ground activities, going door to door and social media. Closer to the elections we will use radio effectively.”
Politics, not Products
Election time is busy not only for party workers and candidates but also for communication agencies. Over the last few elections, campaigning has become a much more professional and competitive affair. Political organizations now look for professional help to strategize their message and plan campaign tactics. For an agency, are products and political parties the same deal? Bargotra says the processes of working on the two are very similar. He says, “It is an interesting challenge as it requires you to reach out to masses and change perceptions that have built over a period of time and the campaign is expected to change these perceptions in two to three months.” There are differences too, he says, “The stakes are different. With a political campaign we are talking to a universal audience, across socio economic groups, demographics and age groups so it becomes quite difficult.
A target group between the ages 20 to 25 would react differently from a group aged 40 and above. Although there have been efforts to talk to the youth in a different manner, but essentially the campaign remains the same. You have to consider the common denominator.”
Speaking on the process, Santosh Padhi, Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Taproot India says, “It is very similar to working on a brand. With every campaign, be it a political party or a product, the agency needs to find the single big thing the party, person, product or service has to offer and eventually weave the campaign around it. Considering the diversity of our country, the big idea should be able to expand flexibly and be adaptable easily without losing its charm and impact.” Does one need to believe in the party’s ideology to be able to work on its campaign? “Not necessarily,” says Padhi, “at times we work on women centric products but we don’t change our sex.
In order to work on a campaign, it’s important to understand factors such as the behaviour, mind-set and category, just like you would when working on a brand. As an industry, we wear different hats and this is one of many.”
Apart from the new party on the block, what has changed the face of these elections is the large role that the digital medium has come to play. As Menon put it, “It’s almost as if the elections are taking place in the virtual world than in reality.” When it comes to digital campaigning, the first party that comes to mind is BJP. This is not the first time that BJP is capitalizing on the Internet as a medium to reach out to voters. BJP had attempted an online campaign in 2009 as well but perhaps that was a little too soon for a country which was just being introduced to 3G. Five years later, BJP has not given up on the Internet but mastered it. “Visible on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter from as early as a year before the elections, Narendra Modi has managed to gather a lot of positive PR value simply for his advanced use of technology,” says Suveer Bajaj, Co-Founder, FoxyMoron, “Most of the political organizations have recognized that a majority of their potential voter base is to be found on this platform and the identification is very rightful.” Padhi states, “Digital is playing an important role because it is a medium that correctly connects with the 150 million first time voters.”
Comparing the new medium with traditional media, Sanjay Mehta, Founder & Joint CEO, Social Wavelengths says, “It is helping the parties in targeting audiences with the exact message meant for them. With traditional media, there is one common message that goes out and anybody who is reading or watching, irrespective of demography and location, receives the same message.”
How are the parties using the medium?
“The Congress and BJP have only just scratched the surface of what social media can do for them,” says Atul Hegde, Chief Executive Officer, Ignitee. He adds, “The BJP has done a fairly good job, being far savvier. But as they have invested so many resources in the medium, they could have done a lot more.
AAP, on the other hand, has used the medium much more smartly. They have used it as an interactive platform rather than a one-way exchange. For them, it’s a grass root enabler strategy which I think is what the medium is better suited to deliver.” Bajaj adds, “AAP is the only party that has managed to gather virality in its right form but can that be a scaleable model? That’s the quandary they are stuck in at the moment. What is working for AAP on digital is that their content has a human touch as opposed to a bunch of scheduled tweets which are probably just excerpts from a speech written by a content writer.” Commenting on BJP’s digital strategy, Bajaj says, “From a content perspective, they are disseminating their political agenda categorically and methodically. They have strategic messages that address the youth, the regional level and messages that address national accountability.”
The App War
The app updates users with live information from the party such as videos, events, basic information and history of the BJP, registration to join the party, photos, speeches, etc
Instead of following multiple accounts of leaders and constituencies, this app collates the social networking feeds of BJP leaders including Narendra Modi, LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Aravind Limbavali, Dr Subramanian Swamy as well as updates from the BJP India Twitter and Facebook accounts.
An open forum for party volunteers enabling discussions and exchange of ideas on a common platform. The app has a four minute video explaining its function as well.
Aam Aadmi Patry (AAP) Official:
The mobile application keeps supported updated with the latest happening within the party. It contains news, videos and facebook updates. The app also helps users connect with party leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia, Yogender Yadav, Kumar Vishwas, Mayank Gandhi and Shazia Ilmi.
The app developed by With Congress volunteers updates supporters on what’s new with the party. It gives users access to daily news and updates, videos, images and highlights of the UPA’s achievement.
Some Smart Thinking
The results may not have been in their favour but the BJP did some advanced homework prior to the Delhi elections. Using sophisticated analytical tools, the party’s IT cell spent months analyzing the voting behaviour of about 12 million voters, studying how they voted in previous elections and how they were likely to vote in the upcoming elections.
To strengthen the membership numbers of its party for the Lok Sabha elections, Aam Aadmi Party launched the ‘Main Bhi Aam Aadmi’ initiative. Among other options, citizens had the simple option of giving a missed call to the party to register as a member.
Both Congress and BJP have developed dedicated websites to crowd source ideas for their 2014 election manifesto. (http://www.incmanifesto.in/ and http://www.bjpelectionmanifesto.com/)
If you listen to Samajwadi Party’s song promoting party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, don’t be surprised if it reminds you of Billy Joel. The party purchased the rights of the popular song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and adapted it into Hindi with lyrics that begin, “Mann se hain Mulayam...”
Both the leading parties, Congress and BJP, hired professional firms with expensive equipment such as large cranes and high definition cameras to produce live coverage of their rallies.
BJP rallies have special Twitter tables at the venue to help social media volunteers tweet the event live.
While rallies are a one way discussion and news channel debates barely a discussion, there is no way for the people to interact with a politician directly. Changing this trend are video chats that several politicians have adopted as a means to reach out to supporters without any middleman.
Chai Pe Charcha with NaMo:
Seated at a tea stall in Ahmedabad, Modi connected with lakhs of supporters on February 12, 2014 as he answered questions about governance. The discussion over tea was relayed to 1,000 other tea stalls, set up with large TV screens and projectors, in 300 cities across the country. The event was also broadcast live on the party’s YouTube channel. An example of effective onground and online integration! The party is set to launch part two of ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014 to discuss issues relating to women’s empowerment.
Another medium that candidates are tapping is Google Hangouts. Both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal held hour-long discussions with people watching from across the globe. While Modi’s Hangouts session was moderated by Bollywood’s Ajay Devgn, Kejriwal’s Hangouts were a modest version in the early hours as the aim was to interact with NRIs from USA and Canada.
In a first of its kind initiative, the social network has come together with newslaundry.com and NDTV to present a platform to Facebook users enabling them to ask questions to leading politicians such as Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, among others. Called FacebookTalks Live, the multi-platform, multiscreen initiative will be moderated by Madhu Trehan and will take place from March 3 to 8, 2014.
Battle Of Wits
“We are absolutely thrilled by the jokes and videos that go viral about AAP. There are certain things that become typical of you and all humour targets groups of people - whether it’s women, a particular community or a political party. What AAP really stands for is freedom of expression. It is very necessary to keep our wits about us.” Preeti Sharma Menon, Maharashtra State Secretary, AAP
Then And Now
“Earlier in any election, we used to go to every voter’s place at least four times. First was to distribute pamphlets informing voters who the candidate is, then was to inform them about meetings, then to distribute the voting card and the final visit was on the voting day asking them to come down and vote. Now we can be in touch with the voter through SMS and WhatsApp on a regular basis to spread necessary information,” said Jiten Gajaria, President, BJP Intellectual Cell, Mumbai