Digital entrepreneur Matt Toner is using social media metrics to fine-tune a new fledgling start-up -- his long-shot candidacy for the B.C. New Democrats in the downtown high-rise riding of Vancouver-False Creek.
"Everyone is up in these condo towers and you can't get to them. And if you did, they'd probably throw something at you," said Toner, talking recently at a hipster café near his new media office in Gastown. "So the only way we can get into these towers is through social media."
The BC Liberals won the riding last time by a two-to-one margin, racking up big numbers in Yaletown and Coal Harbour. But NDP strategists believe that the rising unpopularity of Christy Clark and her party has placed Toner within striking distance of beating BC Liberal candidate Sam Sullivan, the former Vancouver mayor. Other False Creek candidates so far include Daniel Tseghay for the BC Greens, and independent Sal Vetro.
The NDP also thinks that Toner is tailor-made for the riding because of his leadership role in Vancouver's struggling digital media industry -- and because social media could play more of a role in Vancouver-False Creek than in any other riding.
Toner thinks this way too. "People are on Facebook these days, even your parents, and that wasn't the case in the 2009 election. So I think the currency of this campaign will be Facebook 'likes.' That is going to be the measure of success.
"If you are campaigning in Point Grey or Fairview, you have access to people. Even on the south side of False Creek, you do.
"But downtown here, it doesn't work that way."
Social media ironically ruined the NDP campaign in Vancouver-False Creek during the last election. Candidate Ray Lam was forced to withdraw over "inappropriate" photos that he posted on Facebook. A new candidate was found, but the NDP campaign in the riding never recovered.
This time around the NDP and Toner plan to use social media to their advantage.
The Obama campaign used "split tests" in the 2012 presidential election to come up with the best online method to persuade people to give votes and dollars. Toner's social media team is using the same technique, firing off emails with different messages to potential supporters, to see which ones are most effective.
"The idea is: You try this and you try that, and you make one small difference between them, and then you see who responds to which message, until you find the sweet spot," said Toner.
"You look at the metrics: How many people opened a newsletter versus those who didn't? Or how many clicked on a link in the newsletter? You're looking for the right pressure point. You're trying to take people who might be passive lurkers and turn them into active volunteers."
Inspired by Layton, Game of Thrones
With the possible exception of Patti MacAhonic, the former Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce executive director, Toner is probably the most unconventional NDP candidate around.
He's a business owner in an industry that has had little use for government, and even less for the labour movement, which has long been at the heart of the NDP's activist base.
Toner has an economics degree, worked as a researcher for the Bank of Canada and then as a trade commissioner in New York City, representing Canadian firms, mainly high-tech companies. He jumped into the private sector in the late '90s, putting together start-up companies in New York and then Toronto to take advantage of the dot-com juggernaut.
When that boom went bust, Toner moved to Vancouver "to drink coffee and figure out my next move." He joined Electronic Arts as a writer, became involved in various aspects of digital media and never left town. In 2006, Toner founded Zeros 2 Heroes Media, which provides digital content to entertainment companies and broadcasters. Toner also teaches at the Vancouver Film School, Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and at the Centre for Digital Media.
Toner, 43, is new to politics and to the NDP. "I'm old for new media, but young for politics. I get to be the new guy again." As he built his new media career, Toner's interest in politics was a passing one. "I'm not a political person, no more than anyone would be who saw an episode of the West Wing and thought: 'Oh, that is interesting.'
"I mean, what I know about politics is what I got from watching the Game of Thrones, right?"
Not your standard candidate boilerplate. But not a quip that will probably hurt Toner among the voters he needs to win over -- younger, somewhat apolitical white-collar professionals and service industry types who haven't voted NDP before, or who might vote Green, or not vote at all.
Toner joined the NDP about five years ago after hearing federal NDP leader Jack Layton speak at a Chinatown restaurant fundraiser. "I was in my mid-'30s, and felt it was time to pick a side. I was sort of thinking about the Green Party, but it didn't seem the right fit, didn't seem practical.
"And I wasn't sure about the NDP because of its historical connections with labour. But I went to see Jack Layton and it was sort of love at first sight," recalled Toner.
"Layton was moving away from that old dichotomy of left versus right and talked about progress as an ecosystem. And he didn't just talk about labour and employers. A lot of young people find that dialogue very tiring."
Not your 'lawn sign' voters
During last year's nomination battle for Vancouver-False Creek, some party members questioned Toner's NDP bona fides. "Some people asked my about my NDP integrity. You know, do I bleed orange?" One member even compared him to Mitt Romney.
But Toner overcame those doubts and defeated Constance Barnes, a park board commissioner with name recognition and, as the daughter of NDP legend Emery Barnes, a formidable pedigree.
Toner's win was largely due to his use of social media. Toner and his team linked his candidacy to a campaign they started called Can We Do It?, which they described as a clarion call to action for people in the beleaguered creative media industry.
Video game studios like Ubisoft, Radical Entertainment, Rockstar and Electronic Arts had been downsizing or closing their Vancouver operations. Many of these jobs had migrated east to Quebec and Ontario, where tax incentives were far higher than in B.C.
"So we plugged into this younger vote, linked to these anxious creative people and urged them to 'hack' into the political process and start to make real change."
Toner's team began searching for Vancouver-False Creek residents they could recruit to the NDP among the 1,200 people who signed on to the Can We Do It newsletter. In the end, the neophyte with no profile found enough other NDP newbies to win.
"We really mobilized them and built a brand. But you have to know which buttons to push. With young people, you need social media. They are not going to put up lawn signs. They make change a different way."
Toner said younger voters respond to values and specific issues rather than to party loyalty. "Whether I can be successful or not will depend on whether I can straddle that line between the progressive ideas that the NDP champions, and the idea of being smart on the business side."
'I want Vancouver to be my next start-up'
Last year, Toner was able to tap into angst over the future of the new media sector. As the May vote approaches, he's trying to harness a similar anxiety in the film industry, another sector undergoing contraction.
His team is using the new start-up PlaceSpeak, a platform which links a citizen's identity with a residential address. On his PlaceSpeak page, Toner says he wants "to make sure your ideas are heard, understood and incorporated into the NDP's game plan for creativity and innovation."
Toner is trying to turn a BC Liberal riding into a swing riding by appealing to downtown private sector creative types who are not part of the NDP's traditional universe.
"What I'm hearing from people is that 'Matt, we're behind you,' but we're trying to figure out how the NDP fits into the equation. And what I tell them is that we all believe in the same values. And if you want a knowledge-based economy, then you need good schools, good health care, a clean environment. That's what draws the creative talent, because that's the place they want to live.
"But if you have a place that is going backwards -- that is not a big drawing card for people. So my vision is: I want Vancouver to be my next start-up because I think we have all the right ingredients here."
Toner believes there are about 1,000 people in the Vancouver-False Creek riding who are employed in the creative media or film industries who could be convinced to vote NDP because of his pledge to push their cause.
"We think our vote is going to be mobilized this year. We're hoping that the folks on the other side [BC Liberals] are less motivated this time and we're hoping we can get some people who might vote Green.
"And if we can get enough people from the creative and media industries, then maybe we can scrap this thing out."