Perhaps the most important example of digital election campaigning in Canadian politics (to date) comes from the Naheed Nenshi for Mayor campaign. It’s not simply that Mr. Nenshi was elected Mayor of Calgary because, in my view, his campaign’s example would stand out even if he hadn’t won.

No, the importance of this example comes from the structure of the campaign. Digital wasn’t an afterthought, a bolt-on or an accident. Digital was engineered into the campaign from the very beginning in a way that embraced the online culture.

At the centre of the effort was Richard Einarson, the campaign’s communication manager.

I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Einarson earlier today (click the play button to listen to the attached podcast). Before I share four of the key takeaways from my research and the discussion, I’d like to share some statistical information and discuss its relevance.

Specifically, I’d like to share that 712,020 Calgarians have Facebook profiles. Remember, that’s how many Calgarians have accounts, not how many actively use Facebook (a number that is likely much smaller). The age distribution of Calgary-based Facebook profiles is as follows…

  • 18-24: 205,120
  • 25-34: 234,660
  • 35-44: 137,960
  • 45-54: 90,340
  • 55-64: 43,940

Why is this important? It proves social media is not strictly a young person’s game as some otherwise believe and preach. There’s significant representation by the population that’s assumed to be the most politically concerned. Also, there’s a chance to engage younger voters and possibly motivate them to ‘get to the vote’. That discussion is more involved and would require a dedicated post. But these numbers, when considering a possible 50% participation rate, also prove that digital alone will not win an election.

Here are four of the key takeaways from my research and insights gained during my interview with Mr. Einarson.

1) Integrated strategy. Digital was engineered into the campaign and used for intelligence gathering and engaging the public. The campaign managed to effectively use multiple channels including a blog, Twitter, Facebook, audio podcasts, YouTube videos, SMS and good old email. Each tool contributed to the campaign and was employed with sharing in mind.

2) Respect for the medium. Rather than try to impose rules or change the way the public uses online tools, the Nenshi campaign embraced digital culture. They went where their target audience was, they participated in conventional ways and became part of the online community. Most importantly, they engaged rather than broadcasted.

3) Authenticity. Where many political candidates communicate by committee, an approach that typically erodes away any semblance of personality, Naheed presented himself online. I’m not just referring to the fact that he did his own Tweets and status updates. I’m talking about Mr. Nenshi injecting his personality into his online communications.

4) Earned media. I’ve blogged about this a fair bit. Facebook and Twitter are outposts just like a campaign headquarters. To notice them, you have to make the trip. Political candidates haven’t truly connected with the idea that hundreds (or thousands) of supporters with avatars, profile photos and image overlays (such as Twibbons) are digital lawn signs — a form of earned media. Mr. Nenshi’s campaign didn’t factor this in to their plans. But, when supporters started “purpling” their own avatars and profile photos, the campaign made DIY Campaign Tools available including images with step-by-step instructions on how to apply them to social network profiles.

Photo: Richard Einarson uploaded to Flickr by Dave Cournoyer.