In every election cycle, political parties are looking at new ways to engage voters and give them an electoral edge. The Liberals successfully leveraged Instagram’s popularity in 2015 and the NDP took “social media by storm” in 2019 with a pair of well-received TikTok videos. Unfortunately for the NDP, their foray into TikTok during the last days of the campaign did not translate into electoral success. Two years later, it’s now #elxn44 and the question on the mind of every digital strategist is whether this is the campaign that TikTok will make a difference?
First off, what is TikTok?
TikTok is a short-form video-sharing app that has exploded in popularity the last few years, particularly with younger audiences. It popularized the combining of custom sounds with choreographed video and additions like AI-powered filters and a hyper-engaged community has made TikTok a global creative hub. From celebrities and meme-creators to passionate content creators from every interest under the sun, TikTok is where users go searching for personalized content that is as authentic as it is addicting.
TikTok in Canadian politics – 2021 edition
As far as Canadian federal politics goes, TikTok has been dominated by a single figure – NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Even after TikTok topped global charts as the most downloaded app of 2020, Singh is the only federal party leader to have an active account. We’re starting to see more federal officials joining the platform, which is to be expected given that 22% of Canadians are now active TikTok users. But crucially, and likely a part of the NDP’s communications strategy, more than 50% of Canadians ages 16-24 use the app.
When it comes to visibility, Jagmeet Singh is often lauded for his massive online following and authentically engaging content. Yet, his biggest challenge will be turning views and likes into electoral action. After all, only about 54% of people aged 18-24 voted in the 2019 federal election, compared to the overall voter turnout of 67%, according to Elections Canada data. However, the NDP and their candidates clearly see the potential for the platform to reach younger voters and to motivate them to turnout to the polls; Just before the 2021 election was formally announced, only 11 of the declared federal candidates had active TikTok campaign accounts and eight of them were NDP candidates.
Making it personal online
This trend in politics of pivoting from personal-outreach to social-outreach shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that’s worked on a recent campaign. Younger millennials and Gen-Zs are a segment of voters that are getting increasingly difficult to reach each cycle; phone banks are almost obsolete as most don’t have landlines and don’t answer unknown numbers (or phone calls in general, if we’re being honest). And on other social media platforms, younger generations are increasingly craving more personal and in-depth formats when it comes to their consumption of political content. TikTok, with its high reach among these demographics and a unique take on short-video, has the ability to combine visuals, audio and messaging into a 60 second clip, just short enough to be trendy and attention grabbing but also long enough to communicate your personality and more complex policy position than a static graphic ever could.
Only one tool in the communications playbook
However, before we get too carried away, TikTok is by no means a magic bullet. In a campaign, it’s only one gadget in a communications toolbox. Candidates and their teams need to be strategic on where they are going to spend their time and resources. A local candidate that neglects media relations, local outreach, or the other social media platforms by putting all their eggs into the TikTok basket will likely be disappointed on election night. But for a party leader like Jagmeet Singh, with the support of a savvy communications team and an audience of more than 740,000 users, taking a few minutes to film a dance before the next campaign stop is well worth the investment. By continuing to build on his viral success in 2019, it’s clear he’s playing the social media long game – a tactic that’s very likely going to be needed as Canada continues to make its way through the pandemic, and digital engagement becomes the norm.
Changing the conversation and raising the issues
Ultimately, building significant appeal on platforms like TikTok speaks to the broader brand positioning of Jagmeet Singh and the NDP. In this election cycle, organic TikToks are still not likely to replace other tried and true digital tactics such as targeted Facebook ads as an efficient tool to get voters to the polls but it is increasingly the platform where younger voters are getting their first taste of civic engagement. We may never know how many votes Jagmeet’s TikTok account will net the NDP this election, but we know for sure it will continue to drive awareness on a multitude of issues. If Jagmeet can continue to make climate justice, phamacare, and free post-secondary education part of the next generation of voter’s regular political vocabulary, he’ll be paving the way for future progressive leaders into #elxn45 and beyond.
Developing a strong TikTok following is far from a proven communications tactic for electoral success, but it could be a helpful part of the recipe for political candidates looking to engage in broader policy and social movements.
We’ll have to wait until September 20th to see if Jagmeet Singh’s star power on TikTok helps him and his party at the ballot box, but he’s definitely found a platform where he can consistently place himself and the NDP at the forefront of the conversation on various issues that matter to the next generation of voters.
Elections are won and lost based on who shows up, but chances are, we’ll still be watching Jagmeet’s TikToks long after the polling stations close on election day.
Authored by: Edward Leung, Alex Mitchell and Negin Saadati