There’s been a noticeable absence of lawn signs during the current Ottawa municipal election. I remember lawn signs being a significant part of elections when I was growing up. Even as recently as 2006 there seemed to be more lawn signs than there are now.

We’re discovering a new trend in politics. Candidates are replacing rather than integrating traditional campaign tactics with digital ones. That is, the candidates are migrating to Google Adwords, Facebook Ads, Facebook groups, Twitter, blogs, smartphone apps and vilified PhoneBots at the expense of door-to-door engagement and lawn signs. It’s a tactical approach to campaigning that suggests a lack of strategic vision.

Like ads in newspapers, signs on buses, and radio and television spots, online advertising is paid media. Like a campaign headquarters, a website is owned media. Like a conversation, blog posts, Tweets and Facebook updates, etc… represent shared media. Lawn signs are a very important element of any election campaign, one that very few candidates have replaced in the digital world.

Lawn signs represent earned media. While candidates pay to have them made (and excepting the signs candidates post on public property themselves), lawn signs are a public declaration of support for a candidate. Households with lawn signs are announcing they will be out on voting day because a particular individual and their platform is good for the job. Lawn signs are more likely to motivate neighbours to learn about and perhaps support a particular candidate.

In the digital world, a lawn sign would be a badge people can put on their website, a Twibbon1 people can put on their Twitter avatar, or a full avatar or profile photo people could use in place of their own to declare support for a particular candidate. Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman has a good Twibbon. While small it is legible.

Candidates need to make it easy for the individuals to show support in the digital world so that each supporter’s profile serves as a signpost for the candidate. A reminder. Just like a lawn sign.

I recognize more eyeballs are gravitating to the digital world. Indeed, my work for the last 17 years has depended on that trend. However, we’re not at the stage where traditional and digital are mutually exclusive. Rather than replace the old with the new, the two tactics should complement and support each other, to collaboratively amplify the other. Instead, campaigns are being driven by tactics rather than a comprehensive and integrated strategy. I wonder how many campaigns are floundering as a result.

  1. A Twibbon is a small graphic that can be added to a social media avatar. Among other things, Twibbons have been used to promote and show support for charitable campaigns. []