While technology can assist political communication at almost every level, communication tools are only effective if the target audiences use them. From radio to email to mobile phones and social media, technology-enabled channels can help political parties distribute messages, mobilize supporters and persuade non-members. But the right people must be listening.
Which channels should a party use and how can it use them effectively? The answer varies and a party needs to understand its communications environment before embarking on a communications technology project. When deciding, a party should consider a number of factors.
- What communications tools are widely used? To communicate effectively, a party will need to leverage the communications channels that its target audience already uses.
- How widespread is internet access and use in the target region? Without the internet, most digital tools won’t work, so a party must find out what channels people use instead.
- How does the target audience access the internet? If a party’s audience is accessing the internet primarily on smartphones or handsets, the party should design its websites or other online communications channels accordingly.
- What are the social or geographic differences in the use of particular channels? In many places, internet usage will be much more common among educated urban citizens than with those in poorer rural communities. Youth, women and other marginalized groups may have limited access to the internet. Factors such as low literacy or disabilities may also prevent some people from using certain websites or from accessing the web at all.
- What are the cultural factors that influence political communications and are there certain types of messages that should not be delivered?
- Are there legal restrictions on the use of certain digital technologies? There can be legal limitations to targeting, for example.
To answer these questions, a party must do its research. It must talk to the people whom it wants to reach in order to determine which news sources they trust and which communications channels they use. It is important for a party to understand each of the different communications environments for its different audiences and how they are evolving. A clear comprehension of this essential background will help a party choose appropriate and effective technologies.
Common Technology Environments
A party will likely encounter two basic technological environments when it comes to digital and online communications. However, in many countries where the population is heterogeneous, its communication strategy will need to accommodate both.
High-tech environments: Tech adoption is at or close to the level of Europe, Japan, the United States and other industrialized countries. The internet is universally available or nearly so, and broadband access is common, even in rural areas. Cell phones are ubiquitous and smart phones are in wide use. Well-funded parties in these environments can employ the latest tools and techniques in their outreach and communications most of the time. However, not everyone in the society will have the same level of technology adoption. In many industrial economies, rural, low-income and minority communities may not have access to fast internet connections, and older voters may not use cell phones (particularly smartphones) with the same facility as younger members of the electorate. The right technology will depend on the particular characteristics of the target audience.
Low-tech environments: Internet access is rare or nonexistent. Cell phones may be common, but smartphones are not. The most common form of personal digital communications is SMS text messaging and any digital communications plan will need to center around that most basic mobile technology. In these environments, radio may be the key broadcast medium, facilitated by the FM receivers built into many cell phones.
Various populations’ access to and willingness to work with technology may differ within each environment. Many countries have an urban and/or educated elite whose internet adoption rates and usage patterns are similar to those in Europe and the United States, while other communities in the same countries – including urban poor and residents of rural areas – may live in a starkly low-tech environment. In these circumstances, parties will likely adopt a mixed strategy, using Facebook, email and other online channels to connect with internet users, and mobile phones/SMS to connect with people who do not regularly access the internet.