The Puzzle of German Online Campaigning: A Brainteaser

By Chris­tine Hüb­n­er.

In the past cou­ple of weeks I have been spend­ing a whole lot of time online. Actu­al­ly I think I’ve spent more time online than usu­al – if that’s even pos­si­ble for a mem­ber of the online gen­er­a­tion. We’ve been mon­i­tor­ing the polit­i­cal cam­paigns around the Ger­man par­lia­men­tary elec­tions held in late Sep­tem­ber. Half out of sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty and half because we fig­ured we would be fol­low­ing close­ly any­ways, we want­ed to keep an eye out on how the can­di­dates run­ning for the six hun­dred some­thing man­dates in Germany’s nation­al par­lia­ment would make use of the Inter­net in their campaigns.

We were par­tic­u­lar­ly curi­ous because there had been quite some advances ear­li­er this year that let us believe the par­ties had a real plan on how to use the Inter­net in their campaigns:

Despite all this dri­ving our hope, after 4 weeks of mon­i­tor­ing we find hor­ren­dous deficits when it comes to online cam­paign­ing of indi­vid­ual MP can­di­dates. Deficits that real­ly leave me puz­zled about what it was exact­ly that the par­ties set out to do online in this campaign.

We par­tic­u­lar start­ed our research by explor­ing the online sphere from the per­spec­tive of a cit­i­zen who needs to not only make a choice for a par­ty over­all, but also choose a direct man­date can­di­date to rep­re­sent her region specif­i­cal­ly. Assum­ing we would look for infor­ma­tion on the can­di­dates in var­i­ous regions we exam­ined their Google hits, web and social media pres­ence. While the can­di­dates of Chris­t­ian and Social Democ­rats often boast­ed slick web­sites with lit­tle con­tent, can­di­dates of the small­er par­ties were some­times even nowhere to be found online. We were star­tled when we realised that half of the can­di­dates in our sam­ple who had a Face­book pro­file (yay!) had dis­abled the com­ment func­tion to not let peo­ple leave them a mes­sage (nay!).

facebookFace­book page with­out comments

I am most star­tled by the use of video footage online: a mea­gre 20% of the 152 can­di­dates mon­i­tored in our sam­ple used some form of video mes­sage to address cit­i­zens online. Maybe one or two had a prop­er set of videos geared towards recent events or as answers ques­tions from cit­i­zens. Dear can­di­dates, any 16-year-old can do bet­ter than this! Look at Youtube and the num­ber of clicks some of these kids with their bub­bly mono­logues and shaky cam­era per­spec­tive get and you might be able to fig­ure out why the num­ber of non-vot­ers was high­est in the group of 18–25 year olds. These smart­phone-tied kids do not think about your TV ads or dis­cuss your over­sized bill­boards – because they sim­ply do not see them. They do not watch TV and do not look out on the street while rid­ing the bus.

YoutubeAny 16-year old Youtu­ber can do better

In total the par­ties have spent about 70 mil­lion Euros in this year’s cam­paign, of which SPD and CDU have had the lion’s share of around 20 mil­lion each.  Enough to spend some of it on a prop­er web­site tem­plate for their can­di­dates, you would think. But mon­ey was first and fore­most spent on tra­di­tion­al cam­paign­ing uten­sils: TV ads, road­side bill­boards, give­away fly­ers, and – you wouldn’t believe they still do this – in-house mail­ings. While in absolute terms peo­ple still watch a lot of TV in Ger­many – more than 3.5 hours per day – the dai­ly hours of TV con­sump­tion have for the first time in ages decreased in 2012, par­tic­u­lar­ly dri­ven by the younger age groups who watch less and less TV and migrate to oth­er media instead. Based on these (pub­licly avail­able) fig­ures and the easy equa­tion “younger age groups = future vot­ers” any rea­son­able media con­sul­tant should have advised to spread efforts over online and offline media. Espe­cial­ly at the base with thou­sands of MP can­di­dates the advan­tages of tar­get­ed online com­mu­ni­ca­tion should be all the much big­ger than of the gen­er­al nation­al TV spot.

Now, I have been rack­ing my brain for a while already about this:

But giv­en that the word of the rise of the Inter­net has been out there for a while, I would have expect­ed more can­di­dates to be able to han­dle these chal­lenges. There have been few indi­vid­ual can­di­dates in our sam­ple who are doing a won­der­ful job with their online pres­ence. What strikes me, how­ev­er, is the struc­tur­al deficit that we see across all par­ties: despite their efforts announced in advance there is no par­ty whose can­di­dates can be large­ly exempt­ed from this crit­i­cism or show that they are on the right path at least. I can­not get rid of the feel­ing that some­one either did not do their home­work here or was pur­pose­ful­ly ignor­ing his or her com­mon sense regard­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion trends of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Obvi­ous­ly, my log­ic has to be flawed some­where, because I am think­ing that there need to be peo­ple in the whole mag­ic cir­cle of pol­i­tics and advi­so­ry who should have known bet­ter how to set up a prop­er online cam­paign for their MP can­di­dates (or sim­ply be able to use Youtube for that mat­ter). Can it be so dif­fi­cult or the fear of fail­ure so big as not to try?

If any­one of you is read­ing this, dear mem­bers of the cam­paign teams, of CNetz, D64 or Digiges, please let us know what the online plan for your par­ties is – because WE COULDN’T SEE ANY OF IT! Please, any­one of the strat­e­gy cir­cles of the big par­ties, helps us out and tell us what the next online-steps for your par­ties and politi­cians will be. Oth­er­wise, this will keep bug­ging my mind for long. Thank you!

PS: You can read the report on find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions (in Ger­man) HERE.

Chris­tine Hüb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

Pic­ture:  No Inter­net Con­nec­tion by Ben Dal­ton (own work) via Flickr, released under Cre­ative Commons.

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  • Reply

    Thanks for your comments!
    @Frage: Cool, danke für die Berich­ti­gung und schön zu sehen, dass es noch andere gemis­chte Think Tanks in der Repub­lik ist. Diesen Trend sollte man mehr pub­lik machen!
    @Flo: You are com­plete­ly right, there is no empir­i­cal evi­dence about the works of online cam­paign­ing, but then again — how can there be if no one has ever tried it prop­er­ly on this side of the pond? I have to say though, that there were indi­vid­ual can­di­dates in the sam­ple who were doing a won­der­ful job com­mu­ni­ca­tion online. That shows that the word of online is out there and some peo­ple are pick­ing it up.
    As to the self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy: touché! That is indeed not real­ly an insight and we were not sur­prised about it either. How­ev­er, I do want to bring for­ward what I like most about online: how cheap is can be to do a good job (com­pared to mail­ing fly­ers I sup­pose). So I do want to empha­size that ESPECIALLY the Inter­net offers a mul­ti­tide of cam­paign­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for can­di­dates with­out a bud­get. This should allow for break­ing the cycle of “peo­ple don’t cam­paign because they can’t win, so they can’t win because they don’t cam­paign”. What do you think? Is there a way to get empir­i­cal evi­dence on this?

  • Frage

    Stimmt aber nicht. Die Mit­glied­sliste der Digiges hat auch MIt­glieder ander­er Parteien:

  • Florian

    Very inter­est­ing study. I do agree that the online cam­paign has been dis­ap­point­ing, but then the ‘real world’ cam­paign was­n’t much bet­ter nei­ther. If you look at suc­cess­ful exam­ples on how to do online, check out Bill de Blasio’s cam­paign for NYC major. He decid­ed to spend almost his entire media bud­get online, pro­duced some videos that went viral and seems to have mas­tered the art of online campaigning.
    Now, I think there could be sev­er­al expla­na­tions for your find­ings. 1) There is very lit­tle real evi­dence that inter­net cam­paign­ing actu­al­ly pro­duces any extra votes. That does­n’t mean it does not work — but we don’t real­ly know if it does. We know it is good at rais­ing mon­ey — but then this is most­ly US evi­dence. 2) It should­n’t be sur­pris­ing that small par­ty candidate’s don’t cam­paign online. It would be irra­tional if they would cam­paign at all since they nor­mal­ly do not stand ANY chance of win­ning a direct man­date. Of course this might be a self-full­fill­ing prophe­cy (peo­ple don’t cam­paign because they can’t win, so they can’t win because they don’t cam­paign — but in most cas­es a Pirate will stand no chance of win­ning, so why would he spend mon­ey online or any­where else?). Ger­many is a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem after all, so you would expect par­ties to cam­paign online — the focus on can­di­dates might be a lit­tle too nar­row here. 3) If you won­der why Pirate can­di­dates don’t real­ly com­mu­ni­cate their own posi­tions, I think this has to do with the nature of the par­ty. The Pirate Par­ty val­ues com­mon posi­tions much more than indi­vid­ual posi­tions and would prob­a­bly have issues with can­di­dates express­ing those online. These are just a few thoughts that might go some way to explain some of these puz­zling findings.

  • Reply

    “Schon seit April 2011 gibt es den Vere­in Dig­i­tale Gesellschaft (Digiges), der den Grü­nen nah­este­ht.” Nachzule­sen in der Süd­deutschen:‑1.1326770

  • Frage

    Für welche Partei macht denn die Digiges die Kommunikationsarbeit?

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