How social media helped Imran Khan conquer the crowds.
(The article was first published in Jan-Feb 2012 edition of Aurora.)
The jalsa (rally) organised by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on December 25th was a major social media milestone for Pakistan. By using disruptive technology, PTI upset the status quo and catapulted someone who did not look like a serious contender into the forefront of the electoral race; all the while engaging voters in fundamentally new ways. This form of tech adoption has ushered in a new relationship model between leaders and their supporters (especially the younger ones), leading all political parties to jostle for the ‘youth vote’.
PTI’s social media campaign highlights the benefits that can be accrued from using ‘customers’ to amplify a message via new technology, despite the presence of established players with greater resources. At its most basic, it is about good fundamentals; it is about selling a product that people want.
According to Dr Awab Alvi, the well-known blogger activist and the driving force behind PTI’s social media strategy, “Social media is only a communications interface. People want to see, hear and interact with our brand and we use the medium to give them what they want. It is not about marketing the brand; the brand is the need of the time due to the country’s situation and people are looking for an alternative and in Imran Khan they see that alternative.”
Thus authenticity matters. Another of the tenets of social media which holds true for PTI as well, is to go where the customers are. PTI has made it possible for people to participate where and when they want, how they want, using the tools and friendships they want. Although a common criticism is that most of Imran Khan’s base cannot vote (it is mostly made up of youngsters under 18), the people who make the criticism forget that this generation can talk, inspire and help build a wave of change. Social media enables them to spend the least amount of money to achieve the change they want. It is these ‘passionistas’ who serve as the base for the party.
PTI has also developed an effective mobile strategy, publicising the number 80022 as a means to drive new membership and encourage participation at political rallies. Using this technology, PTI has segmented its ‘army’ via city and constituency and grouped them by affinities, thereby enabling rapid and effective mobilisation.
“There is a huge army of volunteers working for PTI and to-date none of them have been paid. When you have passionate people doing what they love, and believing in the change, as they do, doing it becomes an end in itself,” says Alvi. “I tell them that it is they who have done this for Pakistan, and I mean it.”
Faisal Kapadia, a blogger and an online activist likens the feeling as “a high that I have never experienced before and with an energy level not even found at a U2 concert.”
PTI uses social media to clarify party policies, dispel rumours, engage with voters, inspire hope and provide a catalyst for change. The key platforms driving PTI’s social media efforts include Imran Khan’s and PTI’s official Facebook pages as well as Facebook groups such as ‘We Want Imran Khan To Be The Next Prime Minister Of Pakistan’ and ‘Jaagutho’. These platforms are aimed at sharing viewpoints, helping supporters, volunteers and campaign workers coordinate their offline and online activities as well as mobilising people to support new initiatives. These four platforms combined aggregate a total of 500,000 fans and can mobilise over 50,000 active participants at any moment in time. On Twitter, PTI has two official pages: @ImranKhanPTI and @PTIofficial. During the recent jalsa, PTI broke 11 global Twitter trends within a five-hour window, reverberating across a 300 million strong community. To understand the significance of this, one need only take into account that it takes a minimum of 500 active users and 1,200-1,900 tweets per hour to break a global trend. To dominate it as PTI did, takes much more.
PTI has also developed an effective mobile strategy, publicising the number 80,022 as a means to drive new membership and encourage participation at political rallies. Using this technology, PTI has segmented its ‘army’ via city and constituency and grouped them by affinities, thereby enabling rapid and effective mobilisation. Other services provided by 80022 include mapping via text (used to give directions to the nearest available pick-up points). The mobile number also served as a feedback platform (coined by PTI as the ‘iReport’) to identify and resolve any problems people were facing while at the jalsa. The jalsa was also live-streamed globally and at its peak was streamed live to over 35,000 people across the globe.
Imran Khan’s jalsa has broken new ground in the marketing of political movements – and the same lessons can be drawn in the business context. Marketing executives need to focus on what will happen when their stakeholders increasingly adopt the ways of social media and remember that all disruptive change always presents itself initially as a fringe activity.
Constant engagement is key for social media and PTI is encouraging users to iterate on official material, recasting it as they see fit. A good example was the photograph of Imran Khan addressing the jalsa with the single word ‘Hope’, which was subsequently recast as ‘Hope is priceless… for everything else there is MasterCard’.
Imran Khan’s jalsa has broken new ground in the marketing of political movements – and the same lessons can be drawn in the business context. Marketing executives need to focus on what will happen when their stakeholders increasingly adopt the ways of social media and remember that all disruptive change always presents itself initially as a fringe activity. Marketers need to make it a priority to understand social media adoption milestones to avoid being caught by surprise. Here are some of the lessons marketers can learn from the jalsa.
1 PTI’s strategic focus is on selling leadership, not policy. Most political campaigns sell their candidates like products, replete with features and benefits (policies and programmes). However, leadership, personal qualities and beliefs inspire more profoundly than policies.
2 Trust your stakeholders. Smart organisations share ‘control’. Letting go energises people to contribute in meaningful ways.
3 Realise you cannot control the conversation and that is OK.
4 The more transparent and collaborative, the stronger an organisation will be as a competitor.
5 Think small. Industrial economy marketing held that only big numbers and initiatives were worth watching. Yet, in the digital age, a lot of people doing small stuff can have a big impact because social media affords so much leverage. Many small numbers can roll up to a big number. Many-to-many means geometric growth and acceleration.
For PTI, the next move is to organise the grassroots and translate online activism into offline activism.
“Until now it’s been all about Imran Khan’s capacity to draw in people. Now that we have seen the potential we will be focusing on other initiatives. Jaagutho is one such initiative aimed at creating a ‘responsible citizen’ model at the mohalla level and we hope to implement this soon,” says Alvi.
He adds: “The future is calling”.
Umair Mohsin is Global Director, MI Digital. email@example.com