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In all respects, the Ford campaign treated social media as an adjunct to their campaign, as opposed to a key element of it.

arguably minor.

Social media did play a role, but it was Both the Nenshi and Ford campaigns were suc-

Instead, their campaign

team focused on more traditional campaign tech- niques.

cessful. Both campaigns were initially written off as longshots, but were able to best better known and arguably better-heeled, established opponents. And both had two completely different approaches to social media. So, what, if anything, can we learn from these two local contests? The first lesson is one that fellow C&E colum-

nist Warren Kinsella recently wrote of in a Toronto Sun piece about the mayoral race: campaigns mat- ter. But I prefer to put it a different way: social media won’t save you. In the end, traditional social media is a network to communicate and engage with voters.

But it remains completely depend-

ent on having a clear message that resonates with voters. If your message is ineffective, unclear or out of

touch, social media cannot and will not pull your campaign out of the fire. A recent Globe and Mail digital technology columnist wondered whether Ford’s opponent, former provincial cabinet min- ister George Smitherman , could have won if he had just used Twitter better. The answer is quite simple: nope. Most observers dissecting Smitherman’s failed bid point to his convoluted message and the fact that his policies seemed to be all over the polit- ical map, whereas Ford kept to one simple mes- sage: respect for taxpayers. In such a circumstance, delivering such a message through a social network or microblogging platform isn’t going to turn the ship around. In fact, if you don’t have an effective message, it may even make things worse. The second lesson from both campaigns is the

importance of being authentic when using social media. Both the Ford and Nenshi campaigns were confident in who they were and how they pre- sented the candidates themselves: this is who I am. Although Rob Ford and Naheed Nenshi are two very different people, both were happy to just be themselves. And their online presence accurately reflected who they were. Such an approach plays every well in a social

media context. Once of the more powerful fea- tures of social networks is the ability for the public to learn more about the candidate on their own time and in their own way. Both campaigns pro- vided the tools for voters to do that. And that was an essential ingredient in their success – especially

December 2010 | Campaigns & Elections 27

when they needed to circumvent how they were portrayed by their opponents, newspaper colum- nists or even a prevailing public perception. Sure, Rob Ford’s YouTube videos were unpol- ished and direct – but so is Rob Ford. That was the beauty of his approach – his online presence painted a holistic and accurate portrait of who Rob Ford is. It gave voters the chance to hear directly from Ford about what his plans were in key areas of concern for voters. And voters took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about Ford:

by Election Day, Ford’s campaign videos

had been viewed over 170,000 times, versus op- ponent Smitherman who had less than 40,000 total views.

Both the Nenshi and Ford campaigns pro- vide excellent templates for contemporary cam- paigning in Canada. Both establish a reasonable baseline of activity for any serious campaign looking to utilize and integrate social media to connect to voters. Were they particularly innov- ative? No. If you’re looking for cutting edge, various U.S. midterm campaigns offer a much more revealing glimpse of where online cam- paigns are headed. But the important lesson they provide to us is what social media will or will not do for your cam- paign. In a competitive campaign environment, so- cial media can serve as a key element to broadcast your message, interact with voters and get out your vote. And online campaigning will only become more critical as time (and technology) progresses. But a winning campaign still needs a clear and

relevant message and ideas that hold interest with a wide swath of voters. It still needs a candidate that can appeal to voters and can communicate key themes and messages effectively.

It still needs an

organization that can translate interest into votes at the ballot box. In the end, social media can and will play an in-

tegral role in a campaign. But without those other crucial elements, your may find yourself tweeting into the wind.

Brett Bell is the principal of Grassroots Online (www. With over 15 years of real cam- paigning experience, he was one of the early Canadian advocates for the powerful potential of social media in the world of politics and advocacy campaigning.

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