Social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will play a key role for all broadcasters in the coming general election. Alex Farber reports on how they plan to use the technology.

The forthcoming general election will be the first to be fought against a backdrop of widespread social-media adoption, which broadcasters are tapping into to deliver politics to the masses like never before.

The leaders’ debates, which in part have come about as a result of rising public demand for more interaction, are spearheading the broadcasters’ pushes into social media following the gradual integration of services around entertainment and sports shows.

Julian March, executive producer for Sky News Online, says it will be the first election in which social media will play a vital role in the broadcaster’s coverage.

“It’s the first time social media has become part of the fabric of the election,” says March. “The elections are the meat and drink of news organisations and the sort of thing we’re judged by. And then there’s the combination of the challenge of engaging people in politics, so we need to be alive to all of the tools at our disposal.”

Cover It Live, a live blogging platform that ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have integrated into their sites to aggregate and manage blogs, polls, Tweets and Facebook updates around live video streaming, estimates readers will spend a total of 150 million minutes on the service on the day of the debates.

Innovative tie-ups

The last general election, held in 2005, pre-dated both the launch of Twitter and the widespread adoption of Facebook. The broadcasters’ online distribution strategies for their own content were also far removed from the more mature presence each is capable of today, offering the potential for more innovative social media tie-ups.

While the BBC is keeping its plans close to its chest ahead of its leadership debate on 29 April, Alex Gubbay, social media editor for BBC News, says it is emerging as a vital way to reach and educate previously untapped audiences.

“By engaging our audiences as much as possible in our coverage, we hope to further their understanding of the key election policies and issues, and encourage them to take a more active interest in the democratic process,” he says.

A dedicated BBC Radio 5 Live election site, launched in early April, pulls together election-themed iPlayer audio from the station, with comments made via social-media aggregator 5 Live connect.

Meanwhile, other major broadcasters are focusing their efforts on integration and distribution of content via Facebook and Twitter, as well as Cover It Live.

This was kicked off in March by C4 News, which, while missing out on the chance to broadcast a leaders’ debate, secured the chancellors for its Ask The Chancellors debate. It was streamed via the C4.com homepage and users were able to comment and vote during the show.

The online coverage received positive results, with almost 180,000 page views, and sparked about 20,000 Tweets around the 60-minute show. The C4 News Facebook page received 12,000 visits from its 5,000 fans.

Vicky Taylor, commissioning editor of new media for news and current affairs at C4, says it is vital to adapt to shifting audience habits and expectations. “We’ve moved on from just being about TV,” she explains. “How you distribute your content and bring in new audiences is essential. People are eager to get involved now rather than just observe. I think this will be an election that people will follow on the web and find information about online rather than through traditional media.”

Following the debate, C4 will continue to invest in its two new online tools - FactCheck, which acts as a resource to discover the truth behind politicians’ claims, and Who Knows Who, a tool that displays connections between politicians - both of which rely on the online community for input.

Sky News has used its leaders’ debate to roll out a presence on Facebook, the first time it has distributed and sourced content via a third-party site, as it bids to reach a new audience.

It has created a dedicated profile, which it is using to call for visitors to submit questions, with those selected invited to ask them personally during the show. A range of polls, images, videos and updates has also been added.

“It’s old thinking to have the story kept within the walled garden of our own site,” says March. “It’s one way to reach a new audience and the debate is a great opportunity for engagement. As a news provider, we have to think about ubiquity and reach as wide an audience as possible.”

Sky News’ leaders’ debate page currently has only about 1,200 fans but March is confident this will grow in the run-up to the debate, bolstered by promotion from the 65,000 Twitter followers the channel has amassed for its breaking and general news updates to date.

It also plans to stream the debate live on its own site and allow visitors to engage using various social-media channels via the Cover It Live platform.

ITV has not rolled out a dedicated Facebook presence, beyond the News profile it runs with more than 4,100 fans. But it is bidding to drive traffic to its site from Facebook during the debate itself via live blogging tool Facebook Live Stream Box, which allows visitors to log in to their Facebook account and post and view realtime status updates.

Ben Ayers, social media manager for ITV, says it is testing how to distribute content virally via Facebook. “We’re using Facebook Live as well as Cover It Live because any updates are posted in users’ news feed and there will be a viral effect that we’re keen to explore,” he explains. “We want to work closely with Facebook to show how people react and chat via the UK’s biggest social-media platform.”

Dominic Cameron, managing director of ITV.com, says it’s vital to offer visitors context and reaction online. “Users will be able to switch from seeing what their friends are saying to what everyone on Facebook is saying about the debate in real time,” he says.

ITV tested integrating content sourced from social media into live broadcasts during the Budget in March by broadcasting split-screen footage of Alistair Darling’s speech with blog updates from ITV’s political editor, Tom Bradby. This points to possible crossover opportunities but remains at a nascent stage and will not be used during the leaders’ debate.

As well as using social media as a tool to enhance broadcast coverage to millions, it can be used to drill down to improve the content experience for small groups of people online.

Sky News will serve its community of users by developing services such as polls, data and blogs that are relevant to its online network.

As part of an overhaul of its website for the election, Sky News has launched interactive tools including Election Map, which shows detailed information about each constituency, and the Who Do I Vote For? app, which matches visitors’ opinions with a political party.

“The beauty of the internet is that you can make things hyper-relevant - you can tell the story to local constituents, for example,” says March.

It’s a view echoed by social-media expert James Whatley of social-media agency 1000heads, who would like to see the steps the broadcasters are taking to engage communities online taken into the real world.

“It’s great to see the broadcasters enabling conversations around the leaders’ debates, but it would be better to see them getting debates going about local issues and using online tools to drive offline engagement.”

Sustaining momentum

He adds that it is vital for broadcasters to commit properly to their socialmedia strategies to ensure any momentum generated is sustained.

“The benefit you get out of using social media is directly proportional to the energy and effort you put in,” agrees March.

ITV is broadening its social-media activity across the business, from entertainment shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and GMTV to live Indian Premier League cricket and football, where up to 20,000 unique users have been logging on to interact with each other during games.

Ayers has engaged several departments to take over responsibility for their own social-media strategies as they are closest to the audience and content produced. But, he says, however well integrated the socialmedia strategy is, its success remains closely tied to the strength of the content being broadcast.

“There’s always a danger of overhyping the opportunities surrounding social media. Content remains the key driver of any conversations,” says Ayers.

The leaders’ debates will undoubtedly be consumed in the main on TV, but as increasing numbers of viewers either migrate online or watch TV with a laptop or mobile to hand, so broadcasters are right to be alive to the rich, interactive opportunities at their disposal, which will enhance the viewing experience and build loyalty.

There is still a long way to go in terms of seamless integration between TV and social media, but the broadcasters are clearly stepping up their strategy in terms of how they distribute content and encourage engagement online.

ONLINE COVERAGE
WHAT BROADCASTERS ARE DOING

BBC
■ BBC News Facebook page, which has 14,700 fans, is dedicated to its election coverage.
■ It includes call for fans to submit ‘If I Were PM’ videos addressing their most important election issue in under a minute.
■ Radio 5 Live has launched an election site that brings together BBC interviews and listener comments from sources such as Facebook and Twitter.

ITV
■ The election debate will be streamed via the site, with visitors able to post moderated comments and vote in polls via live blogging platform Cover It Live.
■ ITV will also add Facebook Live to its site so comments are posted to be distributed across the social network.

Channel 4
■ Following a Channel 4 homepage takeover streaming the chancellors’ debate with support via Cover It Live, Channel 4 News has launched an election blog that includes moderated Tweets from political figures and visitors.
■ It has also launched online services including political networking tool Who Knows Who, and accuracy monitor FactCheck.

Sky
■ Sky will stream both its own and the BBC’s leaders’ debate online. It will also use Cover It Live to enable visitors to engage with the debate.
■ A dedicated Facebook page, which has 1,800 fans, has been launched to encourage visitors to submit questions for its debate.