Online Ops: What Lord Ashcroft’s £1.3 million “capital injection” into ConservativeHome really means
Lord Ashcroft last week bought the ConservativeHome stable of sites, along with the PoliticsHome news aggregator, for what some would say was a paltry sum of £1.3 million. And yes, I’m just jealous about Labourhome not being worth £1.3 million.
I don’t see a business case for investing in a firm with no revenue (though you could argue the sites are very strong brands – ConHome is read by nearly every Tory operator, and PoliticsHome distributes content to most media/broadcast outlets in the country, bypassing traditional filters and getting straight to the opinion formers). No, this was entirely a political game, and Lord Ashcroft has upped the ante. But Labour will fight back.
This deal signals that the Tories are very serious about their online operations. Most of us have known about this for a while now, and a number of people on our side, like Sue MacMillan, Alex Smith, Sunder Katwala, Mark Hanson, Greg Jackson and some others have been working tirelessly behind the scenes (with very little support and even fewer resources – though Labour has really started to catch-up and will continue to expand, not by having someone to compete with Guido, but in terms of organising potential, and within the context of the collateral they are producing) on some exciting things. But looking at the bigger picture, WebCameron is easily contrasted with the PM’s now-notorious YouTube videos (though he does know how to tell a good joke).
It’s important we use the word online operations, because their activities won’t be restricted to the blogosphere. Tim Montgomerie and Lord Ashcroft are skilled and smart operators, and they understand how the blogosphere is essentially a distribution channel – but they’ve also got a wider vision, and it’s not at all blog-centric. Be prepared to see:
Online micro-fundraising on steroids
Essentially community fundraising for “approved candidates” who adhere to the ConHome principles of Conservativsm (these candidates don’t actually need the cash, of course – but fundraising brings along with it a level of support and endearment by voters and constituents that is unmatched by other electioneering activities – it’s about getting people involved with the whole process)
Video attack ads with very high production values
Don’t forget 18 Doughty Street folded into the PoliticsHome stable, bringing along with it lots of experience in the video/visual arenas.
mobile-targeted content and social networking functionality
From giving Conservative activists the tools to execute and gather data from exit polls in constituencies during by-elections, to pushing election results data to the talking heads’ Blackberries whilst they are on live on TV
Smarter gathering and usage of polling data
Relating to everything you can imagine, from the brand of chocolate preferred by Conservative candidates during their tea breaks, to the specific kind of content that is most viewed by likely Conservative supporters on the web, right down to which lines are being spun by public affairs agencies on specific policy areas that are preferred by the incoming batch of Tory MPs.
Stephan Shakespeare also knows a thing or two about gathering data, and using it. This also shifts the burden of attack away from CCHQ, to a private, shadow team. Yes, it’ll be owned by the bloke who happens to have an office larger than the party leader’s, but it won’t have the CCHQ logo on it. And their videos will probably look better than the official CCHQ versions.
It’s straight out of the American electioneering playbook – the best attack ads in the US always come from ‘outside’ the bubble. Remember the spoof 1984/Apple ad that attacked Hillary Clinton? It was the opening salvo from the Obama campaign, and it was Blue State Digital wot won the election. Oh, and one of their employees created that ad.
So what does this all mean? In one fell swoop, Lord Ashcroft has streamlined the Tories’ area of the web, and created a private firm that combines all the synergies that come along with having access to arguably the biggest pipeline/distribution network, with access to all the important media contacts, as well as the content that flows through that pipeline, and the knowledge of what kind of content is most popular and effective.
PS: Fret not, comrades – I know of a number of initiatives that will address Lord Ashcroft’s desire to dominate the world. From Will Straw’s Left Foot Forward to John Prescott’s GoFourth to my own online fundraising project (due to launch Q1 2010) to [name redacted]‘s UK version of the Huffington Post. All I can say is, watch this space.