Jag Singh: Labour's digital expert on the NO to AV campaign

Labour's digital expert Jag Singh on the NO to AV campaign, the digital war and the media in this month's referendum on the alternative vote.

Alternative Vote: Labour's digital expert Jag Singh on the NO to AV campaign
Alternative Vote: Labour's digital expert Jag Singh on the NO to AV campaign

When I signed up to become the digital director for NO to AV I knew what I was signing up for: A campaign that would be out-spent, out-resourced and supported by partners who probably wouldn’t agree on the central issue of how hard to have a go at Nick Clegg. These challenges were going to spill over into the digital arena where we could throw in a broadly apathetic media and visceral, vocal opposition coming from a lot of social media commentators for good measure.

We knew that amplifying our online voice while harnessing offline support would be key to the campaign and so on day one, we set out to identify the key influencers within the space. Once identified, we developed what was almost a campaign within a campaign. We targeted them with special ads, leveraged exclusive content, and even let them break embargoes. We built tools that were specifically designed to target this group, persuade them and amplify any positive coverage we might receive as a result.

The research and development phase was crucial to the campaign. We simply didn’t have the resources to take a traditional approach, and it allowed us to take some early strategic decisions about messaging and implementation. For example, it was clear from the research that there was very little point in committing resources to our Twitter presence. The overall tone of conversation in the Twittersphere was overwhelmingly pro-YES to AV, and our research showed that it wouldn’t largely affect voting intentions. Our main Twitter account wasn’t used as a consumer engagement tool, but instead was focused on tracking and engaging with journalists. We all had our personal Twitter accounts to get involved in tweet-wars and skirmishes, and occasionally I’d draft in some big Twitter players to help hit a trending hashtag, but beyond that we left well enough alone.

The most valuable asset to come out of all this research was our watchlist of influencers and their digital footprints, and we followed them closely across the Web using both behavioural and IP-targeting. We initially used the watch-list to buy very targeted ad spaces across the most-read media and political blogs, but later in the campaign it became a central part of our social media newsroom and press email systems, for instance allowing our media team to know - in real time - how these influencers were engaging with particular pieces of content. The watchlist allowed us to build a campaign that was designed specifically to track and engage with key influencers in a way that I’ve never seen on any other political campaign before. It was an invaluable tool.

We knew that, particularly at the beginning of the campaign, we would face a non-friendly, if not hostile, online space. In terms of pure volume, we were seeing around six pro-AV pieces of content for every anti-AV piece. Getting our message to cut through all this was our next challenge so Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) became the next priority. Fewer opportunities to get our message across meant we had to make supportive content easier to find. This obviously started with our website, where the PR and digital teams worked very closely to ensure that all digital output - from press releases and blog posts to videos and images - was tightly integrated so as to maximise their effect both as a messaging tool and as a piece of effective SEO.

Strong SEO for the website allowed us to build a good foundation but it was never going to be enough on its own. We needed to use it as part of our campaign to win content-creators over as well. We picked key pieces from the websites of national newspapers, particularly those pieces where, while the article was supportive of the campaign, the publication was not, and generated traffic by linking to them, getting supporters to link to them with specific anchor tags, and by leaving comments that helped with key words. I thought of it as brand protection, but the rationale for doing this was simple - for most editors and writers, or anyone researching a specific topic in the online world - it all starts with a Google search. If pro NO to AV pieces were more prominent on search engine result pages, we’d probably help sway editorial opinion, and maximise our chance of positive coverage. There was no point in claiming a victory by having the first two results point to our site if the subsequent eight results were going to link to negative pieces - we garnered, on average, eight positive articles on the first pages of Google and Bing.

The key element from an SEO point of view was quite simple we couldn’t afford to waste anything. If we got a great piece in a national, we couldn’t afford for it to just line the bin the next day. Everything we did started with the question: This is what we have, how do we make the most of it? Whether it was an ad buy, some great coverage, some great work by activists, a youtube video or any of the other component elements of the campaign; the digital campaign helped us to extend that and build it into a whole that was more than its component parts.

In fact, it was that attitude that drove most of the other innovations within the digital sphere. It wasn’t about running a digital campaign, it was about using digital tools to do everything else just a little bit better.

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