CommsCamp15 – engagement using WhatsApp

WhatsApp logo - a green circle with a white speech bubble design and a white phone icon in the middle, WhatsApp written underneath

This session was led by Geoff Coleman who can be found on Twitter @ColeBagski

  • Birmingham City Council (BCC) trialled using WhatsApp during the 2015 General and Local Elections
  • people were encouraged to sign-up to receive information throughout the elections
  • bought a £30 pay as you go Android phone, loaded WhatsApp and synced it to work desktop PC using WhatsApp Web, no cost apart for this as long as the phone is linked to a wifi network
  • used desktop WhatsApp Broadcast lists (up to 256 people per list) which act like an email blind carbon copy list – everyone on the list can see what you’ve sent out but not who else has received it, individuals can also send back messages to the broadcaster and no-one else will see them
  • WhatsApp can be a little shaky so less suitable for time-sensitive news
  • if you wanted everyone to see all of the messages back and forth you could use the group chat function instead, but this would make everyone’s details available – perhaps best for discrete internal groups with clear parameters
  • BCC asked local online influencer to help spread the word as well as using their own channels
  • just under 600 people signed up to the service – how to opt out was also made clear and easy- and attracted a younger profile than other social media audiences who weren’t necessarily following the Council’s Twitter or Facebook accounts
  • as it was an opt-in service, the majority of interactions were polite and productive, with good inquiries that help shape content, as interactions are not public less trolling or showboating as there’s no external audience
  • the BCC team sent out information and updates using text, video and graphics as well as updates from the election count as quickly as possible – hard to keep up on any channel when results are coming in thick and fast though
  • after the election users were asked for feedback which was positive overall
  • had support from chief executive Mark Rogers who was filmed to get across key messages – videos were short, shot on an iPhone and edited in iMovie
  • a few people did try to call or text the WhatsApp phone but were helped to sign up to the service
  • using WhatsApp did create more work over the election campaign but it was high quality engagement
  • which other services could use WhatsApp and deliver added value to publics? Suggestions included:
    • roadworks
    • arts and culture updates
    • adoption and fostering groups to put people in touch with each other and to share news and advice
    • virtual focus groups allowing people to contribute in a group setting but without the dynamics of a face-to-face group where quieter people can be overwhelmed
    • community forums and discussions
    • groups such as tenants and sheltered housing residents
    • first responder groups in an emergency or to potentially ask the public for incoming information
  • the application works well for niche campaigns, wouldn’t work as well for time-sensitive news – if you’re interested in X sign up here and we’ll send you Y as and when
  • Project WIP at Shropshire County Council has trialled using WhatsApp for residents to contact Councillors
  • are there other social messaging apps that could be used? Kik, Snapchat and YikYak were all mentioned but “why would you want to go into that space and would you be welcomed?” was a point made by one delegate

Image: downloaded from the WhatsApp media library


Getting ready for 7 May

 Infographic showing candidate  and constituency information for South Cambridgeshire , including the 2010 results Just one week to go until the General and Local elections, which in the district I work in means one Parliamentary*, 19 district and four parish polls.

Working with elections, graphics, web and mapping colleagues, we wanted to pull together some useful tools to help local voters. Looking at what other councils have done previously, we plumped for an online polling station finder and infographics showing Parliamentary and District Council candidates and previous results.

Find my polling station

As a rural district, my area is entirely made up of villages. We have 120 polling stations, but only one location per village as we tend to run double stations. Most stations are in the same place each year, so why the need for a map, especially when we send out polling cards which give all of the relevant information?

  • polling cards are often mislaid so it helps voters to easily find out where their polling station is
  • we want to help dispell the assumption that you need your polling card to be able to vote
  • there are always new people moving into villages who may not know where the station usually is
  • polling stations do sometimes move – three are in diferent locations this year
  • there are up to three polls to vote in depending on which village you live in – the map tells you which polls are being held in each village, which is especially useful as residents vote in two different parliamentary constituencies

    You can find the map here – covering the whole district. We’re looking forward to seeing how many people use it in the run up to, and on, polling day.


    Infographic showing candidates for the South Cambridgeshire Balsham ward on 7 ay 2015, plus previous 2011 election resultInformation about candidates for all polls is available on the council and other websites, as are details about previous poll results. It’s not all in one place though, so taking a leaf from the fantastic election work from Birmingham City Council’s newsroom over the last few years, we’ve designed infographics for the Parliamentary and District elections. 

    Each infographic is available on the Council website as PDFs, and via Flickr as image files with a creative commons licence. We’ve also provided them to election count and local media via Dropbox, and sent links to local political bloggers who have kindly shared them with their followers.

    Why no infographics for Parish Councils? Logistically, creating them for the four Parish Councils going to poll, and the 28 which have seen candidates elected unopposed, is more difficult:

    • candiates tend to stand in just their name without political affiliation
    • there are many candidates for many seats – often more than ten at a time
    • many are elected unopposed, so there is not always comparative voting data to display. 

    We have still made candidate information available, but via the standard electoral Statement of Persons Nominated and Declaration of Results. It may be that we’ll come up with a more user-friendly way to do this in the future.

    Images: infographics from South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Flickr stream

    *When I say one Parliamentary poll, constituency boundaries mean that we deal with one constituency, but only some of our residents vote in it – some vote in the neighbouring constituency which is dealt with by a neighbouring council. And we also take on a ward of yet another council into our constituency. 

    2014 elections – what I’ve learned

    Polling card showing council logo and the words "Poll Card. Voting on Thursday 22 May"Elections – there were a few about last week. In the district my Council serves, we administered elections for the European Parliament, one County Council by-election, 19 District Council seats and three Parish Councils. It was busy.

    It’s the first election where I’ve really been able to get my teeth into tweeting and posting on Facebook about the election and counts. It’s been a big learning curve, especially as I was also running a polling station and an election count supervisor at the same time.

    Some of the things I’ve learned:

    Elections and Storify go together like cheese and picklethe Storify of our election ran throughout polling and both the local and European election counts. From 22-25 May it was published with the most recent post first so that readers could find the newest information straight away. Post-election it’s been reordered chronologically. It’s had over 300 hits and was inspired by the Birmingham City Council elections Storify by @ColeBagski

    Have back-up tech – running a polling station in a bowling pavillion is fun. It’s not wi-fi central though. Thankfully my 3G dongle was up to the task of keeping me online and posting, as was my trusty smartphone. It also proved crucial at the local count, as social media sites were restricted on the guest wifi service.

    First-time voters can be a bit shy – I was really keen to get a photo and quote from someone who was coming out to cast their first vote. It’s one of the best things about running a polling station, seeing young people using their vote and being heard.  I asked three voters before finding someone willing to let me tweet their picture. One completed trusty photo permission form, and it was done.

    Be prepared when tweeting election results – ahead of the count I created a cut-and-paste sheet of district wards and candidates, ready to drop results into. It also noted which political party held the seat going into the election. Even with this, it was a job to keep up with results as they came in thick and fast. I think it’s something that we’ll get better at as a team with practice.

    Photos of results are OK – when it came to our Parish Council results, two had 15 seats and one had 20 candidates. I have no idea how many tweets those results would have had to have been spread across because we took a picture of the results declaration sheet instead. Much more immediate and, in some ways, more interesting as it shows some of the background of how elections are run.

    We sent out a photo of our European election local totals this way too, which was retweeted nine times, reaching an estimated 10,809 Twitter account timelines.

    Overall, our election tweets reached the timelines of over 50,000 unique users, and the potential number of times tweeters could have seen the hashtag topped 340k.

    Photos, in general, are fab – let’s be honest, elections can get a bit word heavy. We tried to send out photos on Twitter where we could to make our messages more interesting. The ones that get a lot of interest each year are from our chief executive and returning officer, Jean Hunter, as ballot boxes return to the council offices.

    We also tried to add photos to as many Facebook posts as possible, to make them stand out. Our stats show that our page likes were up by 16.4% and our total reach increased by 156.7%, with overall engagement up by over 480%. People want election information and will click/share/comment on it.

    Get your hashtag straight – we agreed to use #SCDCelection; checking first that it wasn’t being used elsewhere of course. It may be that a more local version of the national #Vote14 would work better in future. For the European count, we followed the lead of the Regional Returning Office and used #EuroElection. Will we see a more coordinated approach to hashtags for future elections across the UK?

    We’ll get better at this – I can already see where we can do things better and smarter next time around. I’m pleased with our social media work this time around, but can see where we can boost some areas, build on others and generally just keep on improving.

    The Storify will be handy as we now have a permanent timeline of our work to act as a benchmark for the future. And by using analytics, we can see if our total reach changes at each election. Roll on #Vote15!