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Political leader of the United National Congress (UNC) Kamla Persad-Bissessar during the party’s second virtual Public Meeting.

Digital campaigns are becoming increasingly significant in the local electoral context as political parties, whether big or small, garner support for the upcoming August 10 general election in light of COVID-19 restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many of the ways political campaigns would normally be conducted, including mass rallies.

Even door-to-door canvassing in large numbers is frowned upon given the risk for spreading the virus.

According to the Economic Times, United Stated president Donald Trump and democrats Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders had little choice but to call off large-scale public events in favour of politicking online and over the airwaves.

Political analyst Dr Mukesh Basdeo told the Business Guardian that COVID-19 is driving people to spend more and more time online and it is clear that, in the absence of rallies and in-person campaign events, reaching voters where they are—in this case on their couches, through connected TV, podcasts, digital radio, and social media is critical.

He said while digitisation has been on the rise for the last ten years. However it was in the last five years that social media cemented itself in various ways via numerous platforms.

This, Basdeo said, has proven to be very useful for political parties.

“Social media has provided political parties with an opportunity to target a specific population. In using the technology you find those targeted are of a certain age group from about 18 to 40 years. They would be familiar with technology as they would be familiar with a smart phone,” Basdeo explained.

According to the indexmundi.com, which tracks global demographics, in 2018, 69.66 per cent of T&T’s population was between 15 and 64 years, with 44.99 per cent in the age range 25 to 54.

This represents more than 540,000 voting age adults who matured when it was possible to become digitally capable.

Basdeo cited that technology was also instrumental in the campaigning of former US president Barack Obama.

“He (Obama) used technology in the context where each American voter got a message where it seemed that he was actually speaking to each person,” Basdeo said.

Since then, Basdeo noted, technology has been used more profoundly in campaigning.

But digital campaigning has its drawbacks.

The older population for instance, may be more inclined to the traditional methods, Basdeo explained.

He said those between 50 to 70 years may be still caught in the 20th century, adding that they may be more acquainted with live meetings.

“Using television for campaigning has not picked up. One week has passed in the local election season and we haven’t seen the air time allocated to political parties, maybe this will pick-up after nomination day,” Basdeo noted.

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Endless possibilities

Social media platforms provide political parties with a bigger window to tell a bigger story, Basdeo said.

That window includes the primary platforms: Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter

According to Forbes, marketing doesn’t have to be expensive, but it needs to be strategised smartly to provide big returns.

Basdeo explained the digital world provides endless possibilities to use highly targeted marketing to reach the exact audience which in turn cut costs when compared to traditional advertising like full page print ads.

The World Economic Forum has noted that the coronavirus has caused a considerable drop in advertising spending.

It said ad spends are down nine per cent on average across Europe, with Germany and France falling by seven and 12 per cent respectively.

Cutting the cost

Technology allows for a cheaper means of campaigning.

A spokesman for the local advertising agencies association said digital advertising is already playing a key role for emerging political parties since they lack the financing to run “large scale above-the-line” campaigns.

“Digital is a low-cost medium. I certainly know the smaller parties like the independents are engaging their audience via social media because they don’t have large contributors to do the big media campaigns. To run a large campaign you need money,” he said.

He explained digital is about content creation adding that a decent campaign on Facebook for instance, can be bought for the price of two full colour newspaper ads.

A full page newspaper ad, he said, at the best rates cost between $8,000 to $10,000.

A Facebook campaign has a longer life span as it can run for as long as a month.

Advertising metrics, he added, help ascertain the progress of digital campaigns, what’s working well and what needs to change.

“Digital campaigning enables you to see the number of likes on your page and which ones resonated with your audience for example. You can also know how many people clicked on your ads enabling parties to run those ads for a longer time than the ones which were less popular,” he said.

The spokesman said compared to print campaigning, it is difficult to decipher who reads the paper and how much time is spent on a particular ad.

The Business Guardian reached out to some political parties which confirmed that digital is not only a cheaper way to reach audiences but is also faster.

Anita Haynes, the UNC’s candidate for Tabaquite and the party’s PRO, added that digital campaigning is also an avenue to reach younger voters.

“It’s a mixture of both for the party because we have also maintained our presence via walkabouts in communities. We are also aware that in some rural communities residents may have some access to the Internet so in those areas streaming may not be as effective,” Haynes explained.

She said the party has already established strong social media channels which have been effective for messaging.

“Even prior to the local government election we engaged in pre-budget consultation and community engagements and we put these online which were at a much reduced cost because you’re not paying for major broadcast,” Haynes added.

Prime air time, she explained can cost as much as $20,000 given the competition for space especially as the election draws nearer.