Love him or hate him, Poilievre has mastered social media

—Engagement matters more than reach, says Eric Blais, and Pierre Poilievre’s provocativeness and bold declarations connected with a lot of Canadians—

You may disagree with his message. You may even deeply dislike the man. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that Pierre Poilievre ran one of the most effective leadership campaigns in Canadian political history.

There was a time when the term grassroots marketing had nothing to do with social media, because there was none. It was about identifying grassroots movements of people acting at the local level, and finding ways to have your brand ride along.

StrawberryFrog, the self-described world’s first “Cultural Movement” agency founded in 1999, applied the concept of movement marketing to brands such as Smart Car and IKEA. Back then, that meant bypassing traditional channels like television and other paid media. It also meant convincing a client to spend on actions it could not measure or control. The cultural movement involved five stages: strategy, declaration, provocation, go MASSive, and sustainability.

Poilievre and his strategists appear to have adopted a similar model for his leadership campaign, executing it brilliantly on the ground and through social media.

  • The strategy was clear from the outset: listening and speaking to the frustrations and anger of Canadians feeling left out by the elites and the gatekeepers, and promising to free them;
  • The declaration was bold: running for Prime Minister—not just leader of the Conservative Party—to make Canada the freest nation on earth;
  • Provocation is in Poilievre’s DNA: he made it his brand in the Harper government and, true to form, he provoked various degrees of outrage by pledging to fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada, promoting crypto, and branding “Justinflation”;
  • He went massive on social media, bypassing the “liberal media” (more on that below);
  • Time will tell if his approach is sustainable now that he’s the leader. He needs to deliver on his promises, and ensure his party (it really is “his” now) is ready for the next federal election.

On social media, Jean Charest never stood a chance. Last April, I was asked by the Toronto Star to take part in its print debate on the topic, “Does Poilievre’s social media savvy give him an advantage?”

I argued the Yes side. “While reach matters, engagement matters even more,” I wrote. “The nature of the content, the comments they generate, and the sharing of posts are what make these platforms mission-critical during a leadership campaign. Candidates hoping to connect with the grassroots, expand the party’s appeal, and sign-up members in a hurry must leverage social media.”

The opposing view, argued by Toronto journalist and political activist Vonny Sweetland, was that Charest’s policy chops and unifying rhetoric would win the day. Perhaps on a debate stage, but not on what Lady Gaga called the “toilet of the internet.”

Charest was a relative newcomer to social media, while Poilievre was already well-established and at ease with the platform. It showed from the get-go, when Charest posted a launch video described by political strategist David Herle in a tweet as low energy and lo-fi, adding “8 million former and current professional campaign folks are involved with him so I presume this was deliberate. What’s the thinking?”

Meanwhile, Poilievre was already in declaration and provocation mode, and visibly at ease speaking to the camera, in English and French, from an airport parking lot, whispering on an airplane late at night, at a gas station, or at a passport office. His most viewed video, posted near the end of the campaign, which has so far generated 1.8 million views and almost 5,000 comments on Facebook, is called “Breakfast with Justin.

The comments offer a non-scientific assessment, but are revealing both of Poilievre and the strength of his message:

  • “I like it that you did this video in one take, bloopers included, without choking on your food, because what you said is a mouthful.”
  • “I love this guy, he has a great sense of humour.”
  • “This is amazing! You’ll teach so much of the population about inflation (no one has a clue)”
  • “This is one of the best and most creative political speeches I have seen.”

One of the most controversial videos—some might even say creepy—had Poilievre comparing reclaiming wood beams to reclaiming freedom. “The so-called liberals of today, don’t want to restore the timeless ideas, they want to sweep away our history so that they can invent a new utopia from scratch.” Many weren’t impressed, including The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, who wrote: “Pierre Poilievre’s tribute to old wood shows how our politics is straying into the twilight zone.”

But they weren’t the target to buy party memberships.

It remains to be seen how Poilievre will continue to leverage social media now that he’s the leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition. I doubt he will change his winning, provocative formula. And I suspect his party will also adopt it.

The Liberals and the NDP better figure out how to beat him at his own game on social media. His supporters are already in an echo chamber, but there are many gettable voters left to persuade. One thing is clear: Getting them to reject Poilievre will take more than the type of attack video the NDP released earlier this week.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.