1st March 2016

Elections and social media: what IN and OUT can learn from 2015

The Prime Minister announced last week that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union will take place on Thursday 23rd June. News relating to the referendum is dominating the airwaves, and the ground campaign has begun – with street stalls and canvassing for the various IN and OUT campaigns taking place across the country. In recent years, however, a third major trend has developed which provides a vital tool for broadcasting campaign messages – social media. The 2015 General Election was the first time the major parties of the UK really embraced social media as a campaigning platform, so what can the IN and OUT campaigns learn if they are to use digital media to its full potential for the referendum?

In 2009 the Conservative Party became the first political party in the UK to join Twitter, however they did not know how to use the format effectively. Early posts included a running seat-by-seat breakdown of the 2009 EU and local elections as they came in – hardly groundbreaking or engaging content. By 2015, the vast majority of MPs were on Twitter and using it as a key part of their wider communications strategy. Even David Cameron, who had to apologise in 2009  after using a slang term on Absolute Radio to describe too many tweets, had two accounts run by the Number 10 Press Office and Conservative Campaign Headquarters respectively. Crucially, though, MPs and parties had by now worked out how to utilise Twitter effectively and were able to break stories, provide commentary and ultimately shape the news agenda.

Nowhere was this more clear than during the leaders debates. During the seven-way debate featuring the four major parties as defined by OFCOM, plus the nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland along with the Green Party, more than 9,000 tweets per minute covered the event. Behind the scenes, however, Vines were prepared of key attack lines, and MPs and Cabinet Ministers were provided with suggested tweets to send out during the event. While orchestrated, successfully creating and reinforcing key messages would help to ensure they were able to penetrate this mass of social media activity and influence the news cycle.

While Twitter is of course important, the format does have its limits. The Labour Party focused their social media campaign around Twitter, with thousands of activists hitting the ground campaign every Saturday and tweeting their experiences using the hashtag #LabourDoorstep. But Labour’s embracing of Twitter is indicative of a wider political truth – it is almost taken as a given that people who are left wing more likely to ‘shout it loud and proud’ than people on the right. This makes Twitter for campaigning purposes – at least for the Conservatives – a thankless task. Twitter can also become almost an echo-chamber were activists, advisers and politicians have news feeds which reinforce their views and provide a ‘comfort blanket’ suggesting that more people agree with them than is actually the case. Crucially, however, while one in five people in the UK were on Twitter at the 2015 election, this is dwarfed by the number on Facebook – a staggering 55 per cent.

This 55 per cent is not the proportion of those connected to the internet; it is 55 per cent of the entire population. In addition, the growth of Facebook over the last few years has not been among young people. The growth has come among the over 55s – the group most likely to vote. The Conservatives understood this and made Facebook the focus of their social media campaign.

To understand the importance of Facebook, wider political campaign strategy has to be understood. In the UK a general election is not won and lost across all 650 constituencies. Safe seats with large majorities are highly unlikely to change hands, reducing the campaign to the hundred or so that have an assailable majority. On 8th January 2013, the Labour Party released its list of 106 target seats – which were all offensive seats (seats the party were campaigning to win). The Conservatives, meanwhile, did not publish a list of target seats but were said to be working with a list of 40 to win and 40 to hold – an approach dubbed the 40/40 strategy (in truth, the Tories actually had around 50 to win and 50 to hold, though it wouldn’t be reassuring to name their approach the 50/50 strategy).

With target seats in mind, Facebook’s advertising comes into its own. Facebook holds a lot more information about its users than Twitter, allowing its advertising to be much more focused. Taking advantage of this, the Conservatives were able to target advertisements at people only within their 100 target seats. Further to this, they were able to target specific demographics within those seats and tailor their messaging to meet their interests. It is common practise for political parties to undertake focus groups of people in a particular demographic, to understand what policy they care about, and what they respond well to. Taking this in mind, if the Conservatives wanted to target ads at women between the ages of 30 and 45, interested in buying a house and living in a target seat, they would be able to. A policy resonating well with this particular demographic can then be targeted directly at them – and be seen by as little as 1,000 people fitting that brief. The Conservatives were, at peak, spending over £100,000 per month on Facebook advertising, targeting very specific demographics with tailored messages. This was ten times as much as Labour, whose message was completely swamped in these key seats.

Of course, advertising is not aimed at getting people to simply agree and vote. A second objective is to get people to donate or campaign. With this, email is the most effective means of communication. The Conservative’s spend on Facebook allowed them to use more engaging content to collect this information. Their most successful was a sponsored post, targeted at friends of people who either ‘like’ David Cameron or the Conservative Party, which calculated the amount of tax the voter had saved as a result of government policy since 2010. In exchange, the user supplied their wage, email address and postcode. This helped increase the Conservative Party email list from around 300,000 people in 2010 to over 1.5m at the 2015 election – a list used to identify and target potential new campaigners with ways to get involved in the Conservative campaign, and links to donate. Crucially, though, by feeding their name and postcode into election databases, the user’s address can be found from the electoral role – meaning they can be targeted with direct mail or leafleting. Other parties simply did not put this much effort in with Facebook, and the Conservative campaign time and spend on the platform was hugely successful.

A lot can be taken from the usage of social media during the 2015 general election; emphasising the importance of a consistent message, choosing the right platform to target the right voters, and using each platform to its full potential by linking it with more traditional forms of campaigning. Crucially, the lesson is not simply about spending. With a £7m spending limit for the official IN and OUT campaigns, the temptation to simply outspend rivals will be significant. While the Conservatives greatly outspent their rival parties, the engaging content and tailored use of Facebook advertising showed they had expertise and did not simply throw money at the platform. A coordinated and engaging campaign utilising digital media could be the difference between staying in and leaving the European Union and, with the voting system not being reduced to key seats, we can expect engaging content from both sides of the campaign filling our news feeds, sidebars, and email inboxes over the next few months.

By James Flynn, B2B Account Executive