Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (whose business enterprise also controls Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram) recently laid out a new vision for his platforms. Since political campaigns rely quite heavily on the services provided by Facebook, his vision merits a closer look. How will it shape the digital toolbox that campaigns can use?
Here’s my attempt to read between the lines and draw conclusions concerning the major impacts of the anticipated shift in Facebook’s strategy from a European perspective.
1. The essay is more like a product roadmap for Facebook than a vision for the internet.
Zuckerberg clearly stakes out the new priorities of the Facebook development teams: messaging and private communication. In his essay, the word privacy can almost be read as a stand-in for “messaging.” When he writes that he “believe[s] a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms,” what he means is that messaging products (Messenger, WhatsApp) will become more important than traditional platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
2. It’s an implicit acknowledgment of a flat growth curve.
Here’s the key sentence of his essay: “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication.” Although he does not specifically mention this, the growth curve of traditional open sharing platforms such as Facebook is flat or even falling in certain aspects.
WeChat is a success story in China and Facebook thinks Messenger and WhatsApp could evolve into something like that. To be clear: Facebook and Instagram will continue to be around, this vision does not really impact them. Political campaigns certainly continue to use those channels. However, it is an alarming sign that even the owner of those platforms has lost faith in their long-term success. So part of this should be a signal to political strategist that they need to be looking at new ways of reaching out to voters.
Again, Zuckerberg points the way in his essay: “In a few years, I expect future versions of Messenger and WhatsApp to become the main ways people communicate on the Facebook network.”
3. Campaign experts need to stay ahead of the curve.
For campaign strategists, the major takeaway here is the need to invest resources (including their time) to find the best ways of incorporating messaging in their digital toolbox. In Europe right now, the best opportunity to be present in this segment of the communications market is to operate a Messenger bot-based channel for politicians. There are many good European examples.
A presidential candidate in Slovakia used Messenger to send personalized GOTV messages to his supporters, a Hungarian opposition leader focuses on sharing personal stories with a millennial audience, and a candidate at the top of his party’s EP ticket utilizes it as an interactive newsletter, informing supporters about events, media appearances, and initiatives.
4. Integration of Facebook tools
The different Facebook-owned messaging channels (Messenger, WhatsApp, and Direct in Instagram) will be integrated into one experience and Zuckerberg aims to include SMS (and its expected successor RCS) in the mix: “We plan to start by making it possible for you to send messages to your contacts using any of our services, and then to extend that interoperability to SMS too,” he wrote.
However, it is not clear what services will be available in this integrated channel. As of now, Messenger makes it possible to reach your voters officially at scale, while the same level of access to voters is much more difficult to attain in WhatsApp. (It is mainly possible through small peer-2-peer groups.) It seems likely that this possibility will continue to be available.
As the essay tells us, the way forward for Facebook engineers is to “focus on the most fundamental and private use case—messaging—make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.” In Facebook terminology, the category of “businesses” also includes politics and political campaigns.
5. Facebook’s new principles?
The Zuckerberg essay gives us some information about the principles he plans to build his messaging empire upon: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage. What this means for political campaigns is that it will be possible to engage with voters on this channel, but it will be much harder to reach them here. Voters will have the right to choose if they want to connect with us or not.
6. Messenger and GDPR
It’s clear that deploying a form of Messenger in politics will become a must fairly quickly. In the long run, it will be the most important channel for reaching voters. Any investment and effort in this area is an opportunity for your campaign to be among the first definitive movers into an area all campaigners ultimately will have to get to know in great detail.
Adam Ficsor is a former politician who served as chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and as a cabinet minister in different Hungarian governments until 2010. Now he is a founder and CEO of DatAdat, a software and data company that specializes in helping a wide variety of political and social organizations, including political parties, NGOs, social movements and fan-based organizations. DatAdat transforms its clients’ engagement and interaction with their supporters. One of the main products of DatAdat is WinWith.Me, the first tool for politicians that uses Messenger to communicate with voters.