As the night was approaching and the last votes were counted on June 7, the final day of the European Parliament ( EP) election, you could read Twitter updates in 22 different languages from EP’s official Twitter accounts. Or debate the outcome with people from all over Europe on EPs Facebook page. (This text is also posted on Personal Democracy’s European blog. Read more about the PdF Europe blog here).
To be honest, I wouldn’t have expected that just six months ago, as the EP didn’t even have a Facebook page back then. But these are the days for experimentation and quick changes, and the June 2009 election was the European Parliament’s first experience with social networks. But how does an impersonal institution use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, tools that profile persons, individuals?
Differing from Barack Obama or any other political candidate’s use of social media, EP didn’t have a political cause, other than “use your vote”. I’ve talked with Stephen Clark, EP’s head of web communication to get some insight into the challenges EP faced during their social media experiment. He argues that the “rulebook” for institutional communication has to be rewritten after this election. And even the Vatican had a role to play in this experiment. If the Vatican could have a Facebook page, then it should be safe for the the European Parliament to have one as well, was the message Clark got from his Director-General. To use a religious term familiar to the Vatican, a social media miracle was taking place in front of our eyes. The European Parliament was transforming, experimenting and opening up online (a bit at least). And eventually it also became necessary to be on Twitter, as the web team couldn’t react quickly enough through the main website on the election night.
But first some background on the European Parliament and the European election. Every 5th year, Europeans from the 27 member states (490 millions) are voting for their political representatives for the EP, which consists of 736 candidates representing 7 different political groups. Well, in reality less than half of the population (45 percent) used their vote in the last election in 2004, and speculators said early on that the 2009 election would even worse numbers (it decreased, but not as much as feared, 43 percent).
To increase the voter turnout was also essential for the EP, but how to do that, was one of the questions Clark’s team was contemplating back at the beginning of 2008. Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of online videos in his campaign in the French election in 2007 was inspiring. Later on, Barack Obama’s election campaign was another huge source of inspiration.
– I can’t overstate the impact of the Obama campaign. Obama created a positive environment for us to test out new things. Social networks could have been a hard sell, but it wasn’t. Just as the Obama craze was peaking in mid 2008, EP’s web team got at specific mandate by political authorities to venture into online “interactivity” and “web 2.0” when their election campaign got approved, says Stephen Clark as we are seated in the “Mickey Mouse” bar at the European Parliament in Brussels. The huge café is filled with new members of parliament from all over Europe – we are literally surrounded by the result from the European election.
But the most complicated thing with the EP’s social media effort is their requirements for neutrality, nonpartisanship, impersonality.
– Our challenges as an institution was not to put ourselves in front, this is about the members of parliament (MEPs), the candidates, the parties and countries. Our articles on the EP website are never signed, and we don’t link to third-parties sites. In the beginning, some people were even reluctant to have an EP site on networks such as Facebook, says Clark.
The EP web team started their social network effort late. Comparing to Obama, who started his campaign two year before the election, the EP web team had little extra resources, and could only start full time campaign work when the heavy parliamentary work ended in May 2009. They had the Facebook page ready in May, and had also to do some design work for the MySpace site, which launched in April.
More interactive communication, was one of the advices parts the EP’s web team got when they did some training courses with Paul Marsden, a communication expert from London. Clark also realized that in order to understand blogging and the European blogosphere, you need to have your own blog. So the EP’s web editors started their own blog, but it was password protected for six months before they got permission to take it public. EP also started their own YouTube channel and released several YouTube videos during the campaign. One of them, of a screaming girl running into a voting booth, even drew traditional media attention.
– The video was controversial. People either liked it or didn’t. But because the EP was doing this, it became news, says Clark.
All the social media efforts of the EP were interlinked in the end, and content got cross-promoted on different platforms, everything except from the blog.
Summing up the effort, Clark is convinced they reached people and voters they wouldn’t have reached without the social networks.
Even though the voter turnout didn’t improve, rather decreased, and not all the social network effort was successful – only 100 000 people visited the MySpace profile (in comparison, the EP’s election site had 100 000 visits a day), Clark has some interesting insights from the social media experience:
-This can only work if people talk to people. We can’t talk like an institution, but as people. Nobody questioned why we did it. And for the first time, we got really clear feedback on what we did.
The European Parliament’s social media numbers:
- 55 000 people are fans of EP on Facebook. Most fans from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Poland, and Belgium. Low UK numbers.
- 58 percent of the Facebook friends were male, 42 percent female.
- EP’s web team was twittering in 22 different languages languages on election night (EU has 23 official languages, but since none in the EP’s web team writes Irish, EP was not able to “tweet” in Irish).
- 2500 followers on Twitter totally.
- Web team consisting of 27 people.
- 3000 friends on MySpace.
- EP was present at 8 online platforms ( among them Faceboo, MySpace, Bebo, OneNet).
- The web team has cooperated with the communication agency Scholz & Friends (German) on posters, TV ads, 3D installations, online communication strategy, etc.
- 3000 views a day on Flickr.
- 18 million euro was the total budget for the election campaign. Of that, about 2,5 million for social networks.
- Google adwords worked “incredible well” to boost traffic. 1/3 of the traffic to the website came from search. People stayed around on the election site for 2,5 – 3 minutes.
- EP’s web site had about 500 000 visitors on election night to check the results.