More than 3,700 participants asking around 3,000 questions—that was Christian Lindner’s largest campaign rally of 2017, and it wasn’t in a public square in Munich, Cologne or Hamburg.
The leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party of Germany did it from the balcony at his home in Düsseldorf, where he sat at a desk, casually dressed, and answered questions via Facebook Live. There was no studio, no anchorman, and no staff. It was just him and the live audience.
That’s just one example, but the fact that social media outreach like this is fully driving the conversation in Germany holds major implications for the future of online campaigning. After leading the social media effort for Christian Lindner and the Free Democratic Party in this year’s federal elections, here are my five key takeaways:
1. Social media is no longer just the cherry on the cake. It is the cake.
Social media has become ingrained in the daily lives of citizens across Europe. The potential reach of a Facebook post or tweet can easily surpass the circulation of a local newspaper. This makes social media especially valuable for small or non-parliamentary parties, as they typically have to fight for column space across print media outlets.
This competition is why we at the Free Democratic Party began exploring new formats. Take the video series “#CLimAuto” (Christian Lindner in the car) we launched a couple years back. It allowed us to compensate for our lack of air time and speak to our potential voters directly through 60-second-videos, produced on the road. The ability to reach millions of people a week via Christian Lindner’s personal Facebook account was just as important for our campaign as classic press coverage.
This increased significance of these channels is also reflected in the numbers: all parties invested more money in online campaigning for the 2017 federal elections than they have previously. The majority of budget was still spent on billboards and posters (Großflächenplakate), but online spending is growing fast.
Data as a currency is growing too. For example, the CDU’s canvassing app Connect17, or micro targeting and “dark ads” on Facebook. Digital campaigning in Germany is still not as data-driven as it is in the US (and maybe never will be), but it was clearly more data-driven then ever before.
2. Less is more
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat – every social media channel has a mind of its own. One of the biggest mistakes parties are still making in using social media (and we observed it again in this general election campaign) is to use the very same content (a picture, meme or video) in the same way across social media platforms. This leaves potential voters who are following your party on every social media channel feeling one thing: boredom!
We need to look at every social media channel as a different family member. Instagram might be your female hipster cousin, living in the city. Snapchat is your youngest sibling. And Facebook is your middle-aged uncle from the suburbs. If you wanted to get this family in agreement on politics, you have to vary your arguments and tone in order to effectively communicate with them. That’s how social media channels should be treated.
Of course, producing different content for every channel can be challenging. But keep in mind: not every social media channel is suitable for every candidate or party. Snapchat can work for a candidate from a youth organization – though it might not suit elder, more established politicians.
In the end, remember that less is more: the goal is not to be present on every channel—the goal is to be authentic on the channels you use.
3. It’s not online vs. offline: It’s both
On a Saturday in May 2017, the digital team of the Free Democratic Party in North Rhine-Westphalia booked a Bigboard-Van and drove past IKEA. The huge poster on the back of our car said: “If a furniture store can look after our kids until 8pm, why are the daycare centres in North Rhine-Westphalia not able to do so?”
This is how we drew attention to the insufficient state funding provided to many daycare centres. We took a photo of the scene, posted it on Facebook and a few hours later, we were viral. Almost 12,000 likes, a reach of more than one million people and, most importantly, we ignited a debate, which made its way into the local newspapers.
Several comparable PR campaigns followed and made FDP’s campaign a topic of conversation. What happens on the internet is now subject to coverage in print media and vice versa. The times of separate public spheres—“classic” and “new” media are long gone. Today, we have one public audience and the spheres are interconnected. So feed them with a single mind.
4. The key to rapid response is all in the structure
Content that wows, and the budget to produce it, are essential for successful online campaigning. That is not news. But what has changed is the speed at which we must now do it to be successful.
Of course, the ability to quickly respond to whatever is happening online is not a budget matter. It’s about putting the proper structure in place to succeed. The Free Democrats spent time months before the election bringing together teams—the press office, campaign manager, channel owners, the agency, the creatives, as well as the data experts and the volunteer activists. With so many people involved, leadership is key: Without the will and the dedication to beat every other political party online every single day from the very start of the campaign, we would not have been able to achieve success. Taking the time to develop the right structure, strengthened our coordination and rapid response capacities. When the moments came, we were ready.
5. Court them with humor
Weeks before the vote, some Twitter users created a meme that depicted Christian Lindner as a salesperson for the do-it-all kitchen appliance, Thermomix. #thermilinder was an instant viral hit. A thousand other memes followed. The hashtag was trending, the media took notice, and the entire German online community was laughing.
We laughed with them. Some of our party-activists joined in with their own memes and Christian Lindner himself used the hashtag, tweeting that he needed to rush home now to cook something with his Thermomix. On social media, there’s often a benefit to not taking yourself too seriously.
Just days before the general election, a video from 20 years ago surfaced, where an 18-year-old Christian Lindner offered some insights into his fashion-style. Let’s just say it was…well, special back then. The #Kuhfleckenkrawatte (cow-skin tie) footage went viral – and we decided that it might be funny if Christian Lindner would wear a similar tie at the start of our last Facebook-Live before the general election. We quickly discovered that it’s not so easy to find a cow-skin tie in a few hours. (Thankfully there are great costume shops in Germany.)
At the end of the day, social media is nothing but a big and endless conversation. Nobody wants to listen to someone who is boring or is unable to self-reflect. So the best way to react to anything happening online is to roll with the punches.
Katrin Grothe is head of staff and social media for Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party