The 2013 Australian Federal Election: A Marketing Preview

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After months of speculation, the 2013 Australian Federal election date has now been set. Australia will go to the polls on September 14th.

With eight months until the big day, there’s plenty of time for both sides to plan, execute and deliver on their communication and marketing plans. In this article, I give my personal take on what we should expect to see from both parties.

Let me be clear, this isn’t a political opinion piece advocating for one side or the other. My aim is to present what I would do from a marketing perspective (and particularly digital marketing) if I was in charge of both campaigns, and how that fits with what I’m actually expecting to see. In eight months time, we’ll see how much of this actually unfolded.

The Labor Marketing Campaign

The first tactical move with the Labor campaign is the length of the “notice period” before Election Day. The argument that a longer campaign benefits Labor is premised on the belief that the Coalition, and in particular Abbott, can’t go that long maintaining a purely negative stance towards a “bad Government.”

In my opinion, that’s a good move. It stops what would have been one of the Coalition’s main catch cries of the first half of 2013, that of Labor being a “bad Government” and calling for an election. With that out in the open, it has forced a change of tact from the Coalition.

Where this campaign will be won or lost for Labor rests with how well they can “sell” their achievements and vision for the future, and paint the Coalition as a dangerous alternative. In the last election, this was done quite poorly (from both sides) and ended up with Australia basically being undecided as a result.

Labor needs to focus on its successes from the past 6 years (yes, that includes the Rudd era) including the Stolen Generation apology, the UN security council seat, and the fact that amongst OECD countries, we avoided a recession and have one of the lowest unemployment rates going around. Positive, future building initiatives like the NBN should also be front and centre, although that too actually needs the benefits to the “average Australian” and small business in particular (a key Coalition demographic) more clearly communicated.

The issues above are critical because, according to most political polls in recent times, these are the issues on which the majority of Australians actually agree with Labor’s position. So, how do you do it?

Aside from the usual television commercials and print ads that put these achievements up in bright lights for 30 seconds, an eight-month campaign window opens the door for more subtle PR, social media and digital marketing tactics used to “educate” voters. For example, by using remarketing campaigns that target users who have engaged with this kind of content online, they can continually reinforce the message over a long period of time. Likewise, contextually targeted display advertising, that sits with related online news coverage, blogs and opinion pieces can be used to sway opinion.

I would also be building a campaign microsite designed to explain the policies in simple, easy-to-understand bullet points, as well as showcasing the positives of previous initiatives, backed by facts and figures that are integrated with social sharing capability. Too much of their previous campaigns have centred upon “push” digital marketing, where official channels bombard users (and in most cases, users who are already on their side anyway) with campaign material. The switch in digital and social needs to be to “pull” in voters who are still undecided or could be swayed with the use of targeted advertising. Search Engine ads could then also be targeted to Google search terms like “carbon tax”, “nbn” and “tony abbott” to redirect users to relevant pages on that microsite to “explain the facts.”

On the attack front, I’d be hitting the angle that (statistically) most Australians already agree with, that Tony Abbott is too negative. High-jacking the search term on Google would be a good place to start, but for more mass market appeal I’d run a 30 second TV ad that cuts together a montage of Abbott saying “no” about 15 times, before finishing with “Can you trust Abbott to be positive about Australia’s future?” before one final Abbott “no.”

I’d back this up with pages on the microsite dedicated to video snippets and exact quotes of his previous “gaffes.” Focus on what he’s done since becoming leader of the opposition, and more pertinently, what he’s done since the last election.

In a direct lesson from the recent US political campaign I’d also be developing a series of micro-targeted social media, phone and digital lists to hit particular demographics. Small business owners or regional Australians should be targeted with the benefits of the NBN to them, overseas-born Australians reminded of the Coalition’s aggressive asylum policy, first-time voters reminded of positivity over negativity, etc. These lists should be extensive and built through social media channels, remarketing lists, online petitions and phone polling.

It’s also important what I wouldn’t focus on. Proactive, mass-targeted ads around the carbon tax or refugees would be a mistake, leave that to subtle education tactics. I’d also steer away from Abbott’s past or his position switches on big issues. Both of these would invoke more negative responses than positives, and would reignite the “union slush fund” debate and broken promise of “no carbon tax.” A bad area to venture into.

I’d also let Kevin Rudd do his thing. His “national” campaign for the local seat of Griffith may actually help win some surrounding seats in QLD, and he can run off the QLD Premier’s fading popularity. Let him run.

The Coalition Marketing Campaign

Firstly, I like what Abbott has done since the announcement of the election date. He’s been on TV and radio with his sleeves rolled up, walking around the stage with a microphone, and looking very much the “statesman” in what is an obvious attempt to mirror US-style political tactics. He’s making himself look like a real leader. I’d be keeping that up.

I think the key to a Coalition victory is to ensure that there is enough of a sentiment of “bad Government” with Labor, whilst positioning the Coalition as a proactive and ultimately positive force for Australia.

I would immediately be cutting back the negativity. If they persevere with an eight-month “bash the Government” campaign it will play into Labor’s hands of painting Abbott as too negative. It will also become old, fast. Message fatigue will set in, and in eight months, support could actually swing against them. Beasley tried and failed at that twice, as did Mark Latham. When Rudd did win, he did it with a largely positive campaign.

The recent QLD state elections saw a largely negative “bash the Government” campaign, which resulted in a landslide victory to the LNP, but since then support for the Premier has fallen. For one, this was a much shorter campaign though, only four weeks in total (it appears that lesson was picked up on by Federal Labor). The other key thing to note is that Newman led Bligh in all the preferred Premier polls leading up to Election Day. Abbott does not have that luxury, despite overall his party having a decent lead.

They need to remind the Australian voters of their “bad Government” stance, and focus on the broken promises of the carbon tax, as well as the failed policies of the last two terms. Again, I’d advocate a microsite for that. Like with the Labor campaign, they also need to focus on their proactive policies as well, and what they will do for the economy, jobs and the “average Australian.” Like with the Labor campaign, I’d be supporting this with social media integration and contextually targeted display ads.

The economy is an area where they have a huge opportunity, because despite Australia’s economic position being the envy of the Western World, general sentiment in Australia doesn’t seem to be overly aware of that. Counter the Labor line that Australia’s economy is strong and growing by painting them as “out of touch” and not realising that whilst top line numbers look good, there are still middle-income families who are hurting as a result of business downturns in many sectors and job cuts. In other words, target one of Labor’s strongest demographics with a niche-targeted attack campaign.

This leads to the same recommendation for the Coalition’s campaign in regards to highly-segmented lists of voters. Given the early signs that the Coalition may be borrowing some tactics from the US election, they could already be preparing something like this. Independent thinkers reminded of the union influence within Labor, middle-income families disgruntled with the carbon tax, etc. These lists go on.

One thing I would change is this focus on “trust.” In a borrowed line from Howard’s 2004 election, Abbott has taken to asking “who do you trust to run the country?” The problem I have with this is that “trust” typically favours the incumbent, as it’s a case of “better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.” Howard was the incumbent in 2004. It worked. Abbott is not, and his personal approval rating suggests that voters don’t trust him already. Reminding them of that doesn’t seem wise.

On the attack front, the background to many of Labor’s MPs should come under attack. In particular, some subtle reminders of the union slush fund allegations wouldn’t hurt. Even though Abbott’s background isn’t super-clean, he will probably come out better in the wash on a direct comparison in the eyes of most voters. The broken promises of the Labor Government and the inner turmoil with Rudd should also be hit.

The Rudd-Turnbull “fantasy election” is also one that works in the Coalition’s favour. They have the luxury of being able to use Turnbull in a way that Labor can’t use Rudd. I’d have Turnbull appearing in many posters, TV ads, websites, etc, ensuring his face is prominent. Having it seem like the more popular Turnbull is “second in command” will likely help improve Abbott’s personal approval. Back this up in online display advertising, and ensure the Turnbull social media team are well equipped. It may also help sway voters who are concerned about the issue of the NBN.

The Final Word

Overall, both sides need to improve their messaging from the last election. An undifferentiated campaign led to an undecided Australia, which resulted in a minority Government decided by a handful of Independents. Neither side of politics wants that again.

More integrated digital campaigns, focused on building robust and segmented marketing lists will be key to ensuring the right message gets to the right people at the right time. An individual is typically not going to agree with every single policy or position from either side, so the key is to make sure the message that resonates most is the one they see the most.

Online marketing and integrating offline campaigns with digital allows a campaign of exactly that nature to develop, and I believe has the power to win this election for either side.

Let’s see what happens!

If you would take a different marketing approach from those detailed above, please leave a comment below so we can discuss!

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.