Inspired by US president-elect Barack Obama’s innovative use of social media to rocket himself into the presidency, South African political parties are all stepping up their online efforts to win hearts and minds. In the last week both the ANC and COPE have shown they took note of Obama’s use of social media, with the ANC launching an online community website on the back of its election manifesto launch last weekend.
Both parties have also opened accounts on Twitter, a micro-blogging service that has taken the internet by storm, allowing account holders to instantly broadcast news, views and information.
Obama used forums such as Facebook, Twitter and video-sharing site Youtube to reach millions of new voters. Broadly speaking, these tools are termed social media because they are based on sharing and distributing information online.
In contrast to the last election campaign in 2004, political parties are investing time and resources in exploiting social media.
ANC national spokesperson Jessie Duarte said the social media audience might not be a “swing audience” for the party, but it was an important group of people.
Duarte would not say how much money was being spent on the strategy, but said Ogilvy Interactive was responsible for managing both the online and mobile environment.
The www.myanc.org website includes an SMS notification service that costs R1.50 to register, which has led to criticism in online forums that a large number of people would not be able to afford this service.
But Duarte said the R1.50 was a registration charge levied by network operators and not by the party, pointing out that once users had registered updates were free.
Duarte said the use of social media did not replace traditional forms of communication and mobilisation, but was only one of a number of ways in which the party would interact with potential voters.
COPE national spokesperson Palesa Morudu said although the party was still making use of traditional media they were trying to attract a younger audience who were using social media tools.
The party has been running an electionsa account on Twitter since January 10. Managed by party members, so far the profile has 57 followers compared to the ANC’s Twitter account, ANC_Info, of 54 followers.
Morudu said Twitter enabled potential voters to pose questions to the party and have these answered immediately by leaders.
Meanwhile, the DA has been using Google Ads urging online readers to prevent an ANC two-thirds majority.
DA national director of communications Paul Boughey said Google Ads were only a small piece of the puzzle.
“We also make it easy for people to share our content on social bookmarking and social networking platforms such as Digg, Laaik.it, Del.icio.us and Facebook as it generates links into our sites which in turn generates more visitors.”
Matthew Buckland, head of publishing at 24.com and blogger of matthewbuckland.com said political parties would ignore social media “at their peril”.
He said social media was a key way political parties could reach South Africans as the combined numbers of web (about five-million users) and mobile web users of about 10-million meant that a “fairly significant” number of South Africans were online and interacting.
“It’s been interesting to see the ANC take the internet, particularly social media, seriously for a change because for a long while the ruling party has been a laggard in this area, but last week, as part of their myanc.org launch they established a Youtube channel, a Twitter feed, and mobile site, adding to their various Facebook groups,” he said.
While political parties were starting to take the web and mobile web seriously, they needed to go further, said Buckland.