Alex White
Sunday, 17 July 2011

Using social networks to communicate visually to voters

Lingiarri and Whitlam

Memorable political visuals immediately tell a story and add context to headlines

Tip: if you looked at the photo on this article before starting to read the text, then you’re like 90% of voters. If you’re not sure why this matters, you’re like most political commentators and pundits.

There is a large amount of research about how voters (and readers in general) consume media. But, by and large, we have not done enough as a political party to apply it to how we communicate to voters. This is especially true in these days of the “live web”, where grabbing the attention of potential supporters and voters is crucial.

What does all this mean?

We know from research (in Australia, the USA and UK) that visuals are a crucial connection point in how people consume information and experience politics. To some extent, the media professionals in Labor know this – which is why we avoid our Prime Ministers and Premiers being photographed walking alone, or being filmed near a door with an “exit” sign. Yet we still issue media releases and media kits that are pages and pages of text. Our party’s website is exceptionally text-heavy. Many of our MPs’ newsletters and information leaflets are crammed to the gills with text, and photos are often an afterthought.

Around 90% of people who consume media (especially the newspapers and websites) look at the visuals first: photos, graphs, infographics, displays, and headlines (etc).

Having a visual attached to an article (whether printed or online) makes it three times more likely that someone will read the text associated with the image.

Headlines are more likely to be read if they are accompanied by a photo.

The bigger the picture, the more likely readers are to read the headline.

With social networks like Facebook and Twitter focusing on the now, now, now – we can safely assume that most people’s attention spans aren’t getting longer!

All of this adds up to the sobering truth: voters experience politics at a cursory level at best. Their sense of politics and what Labor stands for is significantly derived from headlines and images that appear online and in print (and obviously, on television). For the average voter, it is the collection of headlines, photos, graphics, cartoons and graphics that accompany politically-themed news stories that give them impressions about politics.

The text – and the quotes – are literally the last thing that most people see. This is true, not just about politics (although it is especially true about politics) but most other areas. Text – the details, facts and key messages that we political tragics like to focus on – is consumed last. Which is not to say it is unimportant, just that it is not as important as we like to think.

The corollary of this is that the most “informed” voters are often actually the least informed. Research in the United States suggests that voters who consider themselves the most informed about politics actually perform worse than random chance when asked about the issues. Similarly, those with higher education (an undergraduate qualification or higher) were more likely to be misinformed about important issues than those with high-school qualifications or lower.

This is for similar reasons that most voters take only impressions from political communications (whether in newspapers, television or online) – they tend to consume information that reinforces existing biases and assimilate only those facts that confirm their existing beliefs.

What actually happens is that voters, especially partisan voters, rationalise decisions they’ve already made, rather than arriving at positions through consideration of facts.

How does this help us? Considering a significant public policy campaign that Labor is engaged in currently – the carbon price – there are a few things we can do.

Firstly, we shouldn’t rely on facts to “win” the “debate”. For those people who are interested, it is likely that they have already formed an opinion and are now cherry-picking the information that confirms their existing opinion of the carbon price. If they support it, they likely ignore contradictory evidence, and similarly, if they oppose it, they will be more likely to read political opinions that also oppose the carbon price.

Rather than relying facts and figures to communicate about policy or politics, we should talk far more about the “why”. There is a lot of research about political communication, and it shows that facts and figures doesn’t work in influencing people’s opinions. Providing context and explaining relevance in a concise, simple and consistent manner that speaks to our aspirations and ideals is more effective. (This is, of course, not to say we shouldn’t have fact-based policy making.)

Secondly, we should use visuals more to spread our communications. Think about those chain emails that get sent around the office – the ones with pictures of cute dogs and cats. The Youtube videos of surfing dogs or someone riding a motorbike with a BBQ strapped to their body. These are frivolous examples of effective communication – the visuals tell the story. And, importantly, they are consumed incredibly quickly.

Think about the most effective political ads and most of the time it is the visuals that are most powerful. The Reagan ad that portrayed the Soviet Union as a bear, or the Bush ad that portrayed terrorists as wolves stalking through a forest. Those ads were considered very influential in the outcomes of elections – yet they were only 30 seconds long!

Strong, powerful visuals that quickly tell a story are more likely to get a video or photo shared. They help people form impressions about complex issues.

With the rise of social media (Australia has the highest per capita use of Facebook for example, with the fastest growth demographics being the over 50s), progressive political organisations like Labor need to communicate more with images. The images we use should be customised to the issue – no stock-photos or file footage!

Thirdly, using social networking (online and in the flesh) helps us tap into what is known as the “power of weak ties”. The friend of a friend, a distant relative, an acquaintance – people with whom you do not have a deep personal relationship are still able to communicate with you freely, share their ideas and their views.
Because most voters are impressionistic, social networking can help form those impressions – and having a political view shared by someone the voter knows (even distantly) spreads those political views via social diffusion. Social diffusion is incredibly effective at sharing information. Think about a book, film or restaurant you have read, watched or visited recently. Chances are that your decision was in part influenced by a recommendation by someone you know. The recommendations of friends and acquaintances can influence our choice of suburb to live in, school to send our kids to, which doctor or dentist to go to – and how we think about politics.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, puts social diffusion and the power of weak ties on turbo speed. And we need content – engaging, visual, evocative and narrative – that can be shared through online and real-world social networks.

Alex White is a communications, campaigns and public policy professional working in the trade union movement. He is a Thornbury Branch member and is national secretary of the Labor Environment Action Network. He blogs at

About Alex White:

Alex White is a national marketing advisor working in the labour movement with a decade of policy, campaigns and public relations experience. His background is complemented by professional and leadership roles in the trade union movement, charities, environmental and political organisations. He blogs at and tweets @alexanderwhite.