Havas Southern Africa CEO Lynn Madeley looks at the use of semiotics, data and social media in electoral campaigns; and the adoption of this in South Africa leading up to the May elections.
So what is semiotics?
Well, take a language. It is made up of various signs and symbols. Semiotics is just the study of these, looking at how these signs and symbols are used and/or interpreted. Unconsciously we collect and analyse these signs and symbols every time we talk to someone or read an e-mail or an online post.
Semiotics, in a way, looks at the hidden language behind what we see and hear. It gives a better understanding to the trends within conversations, and when looked at on a far bigger societal level, it can reveal very interesting facts into what social groups are feeling.
And in terms of communication, marketing and advertising, especially within the political environment, this type of data is invaluable to brands which want to better convey and relate their content to their target audience.
One research paper, titled Semiotics: Recognise the signs, said: “Digital networks are increasingly speeding up the evolution of meaning. It's critical that we see rising concepts well before they are in our rear view mirror. Establishing a semiotic framework allows us to do exactly that. It lets a brand track from where meaning is coming and how and where it is moving.
"The race for viability and relevance cannot be understated.” This idea is being realised and used in politics, especially in the USA, and is something we need to consider in South Africa, leading up to the elections.
Havas Media’s Meaningful Brand analysis shows that people in the US, and all over the world, are looking to live better lives and to get more from life. Their expectations towards the role that institutions, brands and politicians play in this process are also on the rise.
Brands (including presidential and political ones) should be aware that they are able to become more meaningful by adding tangible value to the lives of those people and communities they care about.
An ideal example of this is Obamas 2012 campaign, and his use of data and semiotics in winning a second term. Obama was the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media as a major campaign strategy.
It is important to realise that data-driven decision making played a large role in creating a second term for Obama, and is fast becoming one of the most closely studied elements of the electoral campaign. David Cameron has already hired Obama’s 2012 campaign chief, Jim Messina.
A comparison of Obama and Romney was used in the above mentioned Havas survey, which resulted in Obama leading by 10% in terms of peoples individual and personal concerns, and 15% concerning more collective, social issues surrounding the community or economy.
In the social media craze of today it is easy to forget that in 2008, interacting with people and sending voting reminders on Facebook and Twitter was a big deal; especially since when Obama announced his Democratic Presidential candidacy in 2007, Twitter had just been introduced to the world and the first generation iPhone was only launched a few months later on June 29 2007.
Obama’s 2012 campaign made use of behavioural data scientists in Chicago, who set out to look at and analyse voter behaviour through data assets containing information on millions of voters, donors, volunteers and supporters.
They learned how to use their current supporters to reach those they didn’t know, through multiple channels. They asked the right questions and used the data to test, learn and act; which is the basis of semiotics.
This allowed them to go as far as to figure out what volunteers should mention to each individual voter, based on that voters profile. Many people and organisations credit this marriage of social media, data and political organisation for securing Obama a second term.
One article noted: “Obama dominated the social media space because his team got how networks work. The real power of social media is not in the number of posts or Tweets but in user engagement measured by content spreadability.” Obama logged twice as many Facebook “Likes” and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets as Romney.
With his existing social media base and spreadable content, Obama had far superior reach. The real drivers of an effective social media campaign are based on the psychology of social behaviors.
So, is this strategy being used in the local South African political sphere? To a (much lesser) degree.
While most of our political parties are somewhat active on social media, the degree to which this strategy is planned is not in line with that of Obamas, for example. The realisation that this activity should be based on the psychology of social behaviours is perhaps one that has not been looked into sufficiently in a local context.
It is said that the May 7 elections will be the country’s first ‘digital elections’, as most of the leading parties have reached critical mass on social networks.
The ANC leads the online race with a dominance of followers on Twitter and Facebook, however, the Democratic Alliance has a very strong showing. Taking into account the national statistic for potential voters for the ANC and the DA, in terms of percentages the DA is punching well above what it should be in relation to where the ANC is standing.
An article published recently said: According to research by Apurimac Media, the EFF was starting to challenge the DA’s digital dominance, while the ANC had good reach, but was yet to use it to build digital political momentum.
In March, the DA were engaging their audience the most on Facebook with levels of engagement the highest among all the political parties (this was measured by the percentage of people talking about the DA).
However, in the second week of March we saw Julius Malema and the EFF’s campaign really kicking off with an increase in content being generated from their digital media profiles. This was evident when they hosted a digital Q&A (with the hashtag #MalemaQandA) across both Facebook and Twitter.
The most recent study by Apurimac Media showed that Malema continued to enjoy the largest following on Twitter with just more than 434 000 followers, compared with DA leader Helen Zille (398 121) and President Jacob Zuma (316 045).
These statistics prove that our local parties are aware of the possibilities of using social media in their campaigns, and that the political playing field is being somewhat levelled, as the smaller parties can now compete with the larger ones, because the platforms are technically free to use.
However, just having an online presence is not enough. Obama used digital data to gauge his strong and weak points and changed his campaign around these findings, and this is what local parties need to adopt.
Social media should be used to listen to the public, engage with them and learn from the findings in order to better their campaigns and their policies as a whole.
Political campaigns by their very nature tend to be generic and unentertaining. They often try to be thought provoking but end up being obvious. This may be because they are speaking to a country made up of millions of different types of people and trying to reach them all through one message.
Look at the Saatchi ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ campaign for example. This is one of my favourite campaigns and, dare I say, the reason I got into advertising. This campaign was so easily executed, because the disaster at hand made it easy to attack the leading party. Society and politics has changed since then.
Leading parties can no longer sit back and watch the votes roll in, by regurgitating generic campaigns that have worked in the past.
People are looking for more from brands, from their governments and from their lives.
Their expectations are heightened, and if the political parties don’t rise to meet these expectations, the votes will begin to go in the direction of those parties who do.