WHO can forget May 16, the day the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi led the party to victory in the 2014 general election. Modi’s tweet after winning — ‘India has won. Ache din anne wale hai’ (good days are coming) — created a wave on the social network site as it was re-tweeted 34,554 times within 56 minutes of him using Twitter to talk to the Indian people. Modi has been riding the social media wave for a long time. In fact, his infamous lotus selfie tweet took the social media website by storm last month. The tweet where he had posted a selfie showing his inked finger and his party’s lotus symbol was re-tweeted 3507 times. This was not the first time that political parties and their leaders used Twitter to reach out to people. The ebullient Arvind Kejriwal’s tweet for donations got his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) R80 lakh in 24 hours from across the world. Last month, Kejriwal tweeted appealing to people to donate ‘clean money’ for the election campaign in Varanasi and Amethi. Of the total sum received by the party, R16 lakh was donated by people in Uttar Pradesh, including R2.10 lakh and R2.50 lakh for Amethi and Varanasi, respectively.
Political parties, their leaders and their supporters have used Twitter from time to time to not only talk about their ideologies but also take pot-shots at each other. On April 8, the social media platform turned into a battleground as Modi delivered his speech at the annual general meeting of Ficci Ladies Organisation (FLO). Soon after he began his speech addressing the women present at the venue as his sisters, the two hash tags— #feko and #ModiStormsFICCI, divided in their praise and mockery of the leader, sprang into action on Twitter as supporters of Rahul Gandhi of the Congress and Modi rebuked each other. “So far it was felt that Facebook is the social media platform for personal communication, whereas Twitter is a medium meant for official communication by marketers and brands. This year’s general election actually helped in consolidating Twitter’s position as an official channel for communication. One can say that Twitter acted as the digital newspaper. The extensive use of the medium by political parties once again proved the important role digital plays in today’s world,” said Manish Vij, CEO and founder, Smile Vun Group, a digital media company.
According to observers, one of the reasons behind political parties and their representatives using Twitter is the fact that the platform provided them with direct access to the people. “About 135 million new voters voted in this election, and social/digital media was used extremely effectively to reach out to this constituency,” said Gaurav Kapur, industry lead, Google India.
Agrees KV Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro who says that Twitter provided a big opportunity to directly talk to the youth and the educated Indian, who are otherwise difficult to reach out to. “This particular target audience usually does not attend rallies. They are very clear-headed and are aware of everything. So social network sites such as Twitter is the best way to reach out to them,” he added.
And, while a few political parties were able to cash in on the opportunity, others wasted it. Vineet Bajpai, CEO, TBWA India Group, says that the tussle between the AAP and the BJP was the classic example of ‘how one man’s loss is another man’s gain’. “The AAP which initially targeted the young, educated , middle class lost them after Kejriwal’s debacle as the chief minister of Delhi. The BJP actually utilised its opponent’s failure and swept these voters off their feet on Twitter, by creating noise about various relevant issues through various hashtags run by its volunteers,” said Bajpai.
Bajpai adds that both the AAP and the Congress in their campaign mainly targeted people belonging to the lower socio-economic strata, who rarely use the social network or are not even aware of its existence. “Once the AAP lost its position in Delhi after Kejriwal resigned, it turned its focus to people belonging to lower income groups such as auto drivers, rickshaw-pullers, labourers and slum-dwellers. Though from time to time Kejriwal did return to Twitter, by then he had lost many followers. Likewise, in case of Congress, all its campaigns such as Bharat Nirman clearly spoke about empowering people living in rural India or the urban poor, so it used more of television, print and radio and less of Twitter,” he added.
To be sure, each party took to Twitter in their own style. The BJP, that began its online journey almost a year back, borrowed many ideas from the US presidential campaign of Barack Obama. For example, under the leadership of Chris Hughes, the Obama campaign team created the brand ‘MyBO’ and merchandise flooded the market ahead of the US elections. Similarly, Modi’s team launched the NaMo store (Narendra Modi Store) online, which sold merchandise inspired by Modi’s life and values. Last year in September, team Modi launched the ‘India 272+’ initiative, which resembled the Obama Dashboard. “While the BJP had a strategy and went about it methodically, Modi’s campaign is almost a mirror image of the Obama campaign in tactics. From multiple profiles that tweet to creating multiple sites to generating tweets on subjects that matter to party, everything has been on the Obama campaign template,” said Naresh Gupta, chief strategy officer and managing partner, Bang in the Middle, a digital agency.
The BJP, which was much ahead of its competitors in the game, had identified 150 ‘digital constituencies’ across India. The party used social media and customised micro-messaging such as text messages, emails, WhatsApp messages, Line messages, etc., to reach the voter in constituencies with high internet penetration. “Typically the 150 constituencies are the one with high internet penetration, that is, urban towns. Through content such as jokes, comic strips, etc., and with no counter-response from the Congress which began using social media just four months before the election, the BJP was able to create buzz amongst these voters,” added Gupta.
Analysts believe the other reason behind BJP being able to successfully woo the Indian voter on Twitter is the fact that its campaign was around one man. “The BJP campaign certainly created focus around one man, Modi. This is of course more relevant to a presidential government than our parliamentary system. The risk was that if something was to happen to the man, or if someone else was to be the prime minister from the party, the campaign would backfire. So it’s a calculated risk. It certainly worked to focus the effort on one person,” said Mahesh Murthy, founder, Pinstorm, a digital marketing firm.
Meanwhile, the AAP which tasted success on the social media platform before the Delhi assembly polls, lost its ground once its leader Kejriwal resigned from the Delhi chief minister’s post. “AAP’s entire campaign was based on one big agenda – anti-corruption. However, after the party failed to bring in changes on coming to power in Delhi followed by the abrupt resignation of Kejriwal, the party lost many of its supporters, even in the virtual world,” said a senior executive of an advertising network who did not want to be named.
Nonetheless, the AAP’s continuous usage of Twitter, as Kejriwal and his supporters used it for crowdsourcing funds to taking a dig at AAP’s opponents, helped the party to somewhat regain its space in the battle. Bajpai says that AAP’s initial success and subsequent failure is a lesson for all when it comes to using social network sites. “There are advantages as well as disadvantages to using sites such as Twitter. The power of social media is like a vicious cycle — if the brand is doing well then the usage of social media amplifies the positivity of the brand, and if the brand is in the news for the wrong reasons, then the negative propaganda makes it worse,” he said.
Puneet Johar, managing director, To The New, a digital agency, says that while the AAP was extremely active on Twitter, the buzz was created by different popular personalities of the party, which created confusion amongst voters. “At the end of the day, different personalities of the AAP were promoting different issues unlike the BJP which was consistent in its messaging,” added Johar.
As for the Congress, unlike its competitors the party made limited use of Twitter. According to Bajpai, it was the fear of backlash which kept Congress away from social media. “There was an anti-incumbency feeling thanks to its involvement in several controversies and other economic issues. So the party consciously stayed away from Twitter as it knew that negative publicity on social media could cause serious damage to the party’s fragile image,” he said.
Johar points out that while some of the party’s prominent leaders such as Shashi Tharoor, Ajay Maken and Sanjay Jha were actively tweeting, Rahul Gandhi was conspicuously absent from the social network site. “On one hand you have leaders such as Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal directly talking to the voters online. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi who is said to be the leader of the Congress was missing from the action and was promoted online by his party workers,” said Johar.
According to Kapur of Google India, social/digital media requires a more sustained and ongoing engagement, and short bursts do not always provide the same results. “The Congress party, while late to adopt social media, has made significant progress in building its digital assets. However, its key leaders continue to remain away from direct social media engagement. The BJP had invested more in the digital medium with respect to its presence on platforms such as YouTube, Google+ and using Google + Hangout. The AAP also made use of all the available social media platforma effectively,” said Kapur.
For the record, till May 16 when the election results were announced, Modi had logged 5,055 tweets and 3.99 million followers, clearly emerging the winner in the Twitter battle. Hot on the heels was Kejriwal with 3,158 tweets and 1.79 followers on his Twitter handle, @ArvindKejriwal. “The BJP followed the classic ‘bot strategy’, setting up hundreds of bot / fake accounts that followed each other, to re-tweet messages so they could, in theory, trend easier. The AAP followed the more conservative strategy of not having bot or fake accounts, but by using different hashtags every day to gain prominence. I’d think the AAP bested the BJP in terms of creating and nurturing trending hashtags, when you compare things day-by-day,” said Murthy of Pinstorm.
Gupta of Bang In The Middle says that the AAP never had the time to build up the momentum the way the BJP had, yet they were fairly impactful. “If they had a little more time, they would have made a far bigger impact,” he said.
However, Ankur Bisen, senior vice president of retail at Technopak, a consultancy firm says the reason behind the BJP’s success is that social media became the pivot, which was supported by other media verticals including television, print, radio. “The way the BJP ran its campaign is that on a particular day, a particular topic was raised on Twitter, which was then picked up by other mediums. This strategy helped in creating a ‘boom’ effect in the mind of people, who in turn took to social media platform to talk about the topic.”
Observers feel that the successful use of Twitter by both the BJP and the AAP is a lesson for other political parties who could perhaps use the medium during Assembly polls in their states. “I believe now even smaller regional parties and individual candidates have figured out the power of Twitter and most will adopt it in the weeks and months to come,” said Murthy.
According to Sridhar, the battle on Twitter, is a classic case of marketing. “A market leader is usually always ahead of the game. It has the wherewithal in terms of money, reach, etc. But then enters another company with a game changing product and uses Twitter to mobilise consumers and sweep them off their feet,” said Sridhar.
Bajpai of TBWA points out that what started as a small effort to understand the way people behave through the use of digital, today occupies a central position in the media planning strategy of all political parties. “Consumer behaviour can be measured on digital media real time. While a brand uses the data to understand how its campaigns have fared and the end result is about return-on-investments (RoI), a political party can actually use the data to tweak its campaign real time based on demographic, age group, gender, etc. For a political party, Twitter is not about RoI, but the ability to create a space in the mind of people at a faster rate and mobilise them,” added Bajpai.