What the Italian elections can teach us about disruption (hint: the internet rules)

Monday’s election results will be remembered as a watershed moment in European election history. For the first time, a candidate who had decided to campaign without ever appearing on TV has won a substantial portion of the national vote (25%).

Grillo’s victory is a clear victory for the internet – not only did he never appear on television, he sacked one of his party candidates who had decided to appear on television for a talk show.

This might be seen as the moment Kennedy defeated Nixon in a presidential debate in 1960, because he was the candidate who understood that TV was the medium of the future. This marked the beginning of the era that was to be dominated by the TV for the next 50 years.

Beppe Grillo, the comedian who pulled off this minor electoral miracle, is the internet candidate ‘par excellence’. His message is very simple: Italy’s establishment is corrupt, the media is controlled by old political hands and the people want change. He is the most popular blogger in Italy and has over one million followers on twitter and Facebook.

Earlier this month, I was speaking at meeting on European elections and learnings from the Obama campaign to a group of MEPs at the European Parliament. I suggested in the title of a blog post that I wrote about it afterwards that European politicians “should go where no other politicians have gone before”.

I now need to revise this title, because Grillo has just gone there.

In my talk, I had highlighted the need to look for new ways of engaging the public, but also how the internet had changed the rules of the game.

The Arab Spring, the London Riots and the anti-ACTA campaign taught us that if you know how to leverage the web, you can yield true political power even if the establishment is against you. This environment creates an increasingly dramatic resurgence of Black Swans, the highly unpredictable event that ‘experts’ simply do not see coming.

It also showed that a clear, compelling and emotional message that resonates in this space can gather incredible momentum and is almost always underestimated by observers, because it is outside of their perceptual framework.

Since my talk, these two events have come true in rather dramatic fashion, through the result of Grillo and his web campaign.

It’s clear that Grillo knows how to leverage the web – you don’t get a million Facebook fans otherwise. And it’s also very clear that the outside world underestimated just how powerful that very web can be – because they are still focused on television. Since Grillo doesn’t do television, he wasn’t on their radar until it was too late.

What happened here is a classic case of ‘disruptive innovation’, as Clay Christensen defines it: the web was deemed uninteresting by the established political players, because it seemed so marginal and small, and television – the archetypical mass medium – always yielded a lot more impact.

In Christensen’s model, the web was obviously in the lower left quadrant, and television in the higher right quadrant, where traditionally the fatter margins are (whether in money or votes). Until, of course, it isn’t anymore. 

And suddenly internet campaigning becomes more interesting than television. But by now it’s too late, and Grillo has attracted a mass following online, where they can’t fight him effectively. (In fact, they can’t even fight him from the medium that they control and know, because Grillo tainted television as ‘corrupt’. )

Entrepreneurs can learn some precious lesson from the success of this campaign. After all, they are often the newcomers, facing competition from established players who dominate the field through traditional channels.

First, it’s clear that there’s profit in using channels that your competitors are ignoring – or being better at using them.

Also, a radical commitment to the medium. By banning his party from using traditional media, Grillo has ‘forced’ his organisation to embrace the web by constant experimentation, attracting those who like the medium, but also using it to attract people to events and to spread the word about his campaign. Make sure your team is fully committed to twitter, Facebook and other social tools so they use and breathe these channels in their daily work.

It also shows, I think, that emotional messages will always resonate well. Grillo took very radical positions, always with a very strong emotional angle that connected to his core market. (Whether they will form a coherent political programme is a question that we will see answered soon.) On top of that, Grillo went outside and actually met his followers – his live events attracted enormous crowds. The web doesn’t make human contact unnecessary. Almost on the contrary, it can create a huge demand for live events with thousands of like minded, “niche” followers.

No one, including Grillo himself anticipated the campaign to have this impact on the elections. But once you see that your disruptive campaign is working, embrace it and start reshaping your strategy accordingly. When venturing in new territory forecasting precise outcomes is usually a fools errand.

On the other hand the lessons for European politicians should be clear: expect the unexpected. Start learning about the internet. And: there is a real opportunity to engage deeply with the public. The most likely players that will try this first are the ones whose voices are not heard by traditional media. This might – and probably will, lead to rather unpredictable and sometimes disturbing result. But it’s better to get ready for this then to wake up unprepared for a radically new landscape that might lead to paralysis and confusion, as did the Europeans earlier this on Monday.

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About the author

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss, Founder, Chairman and Chief Hyperthinker of ZN, studied at the University of Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. In his last year he founded and ran Oxford Student Radio, making him the youngest MD of commercial Independent Local Radio in the UK. For this he was awarded the Young Achievers Award from HM the Queen. He came to Brussels in 1998 and set up ZN, looking at how to adapt business and communication strategies to the Internet age. Since then he has worked with leading companies and communication agencies, exploring the challenges and opportunities they and their clients face on the internet and how best to take advantage of the possibilities it creates. He developed the concept of 'Hyperthinking as a tool to help his team and clients adapt their thinking to the web and wrote a recently published book by the same title (more info on "Hyperthinking" ). Connect to Philip on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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