Guest comment: Will it be the social media wot wins it?

Ben Harrington, Managing Director of BlueSocial

Despite the money thrown at it, analysis soon after the last general election suggested social media was merely an “echo chamber” for further extolling views, rather than challenging them. Can this really still be the case, asks Ben Harrington, Managing Director of BlueSocial?

In 1997, it was supposedly “The Sun Wot Won it”, after, what was at the time, the country’s largest newspaper switched political allegiances and started supporting the Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair. Fast forward 20 years, and newspaper circulation and readership have plummeted. The Sun, for example, has halved its readership since 2010 to 1.6 million.

The demise of newspaper distribution has coincided with a huge increase in news, opinions and information being digested digitally, particularly through social media.

Many people heralded the 2015 election as being the first “social media election”; yet, for all the money spent on social media (£1.6m in the case of The Conservative Party), it’s difficult to see what result or impact social media had on party fortunes at the ballot box.

Analysis soon after the last general election, which was only two years ago, suggested that social media was merely an “echo chamber” for further extolling your views, rather than challenging them. Experts also argued that social media followed traditional media’s lead.

On the basis of that, it would be easy to conclude that social media is not really a good place to spend resources or time on in the run up to this election, right? …WRONG!

In 2017, the very idea that social media cannot play a significant part in debate and influence seems crazy to people who work in the industry. If social media can have a major influence for business, brands, celebrities, sport, music stars and charity campaigns, then why not for politics? In 2016, 92% of 18-29 year-olds in the UK were signed up to Facebook; 18-year-olds were four times more likely to be on Facebook than they were to be on the electoral roll. So if social media isn’t the best place to reach out to first time voters, then where is?

General Election 2017

A General Election campaign is like one large marketing exercise, so, for the one coming up on June 8th 2017, there is a huge opportunity to successfully use social media. You’re trying to persuade millions of people to buy into your political “brand” – and social media offers an unparalleled opportunity to go direct to the people you most want to engage with.

Before digital marketing, a lot of political messages needed to be “one size fits all.” However, social media allows you to deliver ideas and policies to people based on who they are. Social offers a huge amount of data about voters; who they are, where they live, their income, likes and dislikes… This data will help political parties reach out to likely supporters and undecided voters.

If you can deliver information about a particular policy to the people who are most likely to buy into that idea, surely that’s a huge advantage to all politicians? Political parties should be looking at the data they already have on potential supporters and voters and using it to inform their social media strategy and their messaging.

If you already know someone is likely to vote for you, you shouldn’t be delivering the same message via social media as you would to a prospective voter. Convincing someone to change their mind is a different process than preaching to the converted! So people who signed up to vote in Labour’s leadership election last year should be getting a different message from those who have never been involved with the party.

All political parties will have profiles of people they are more likely to connect with. If your message is more likely to resonate with people above a certain income group, for example, would this not be the best area to target?

Obviously, political parties draw from a range of demographics; but this is about making the most effective use of budgets and not wasting advertising on people who are harder to convert.

Segmenting on geography is also a key component of promoting a political message on social media. We all know that key marginals, those constituencies where the incumbent MP has only a small majority which could be overturned, play a key role in changing the makeup of the green benches. These are the areas where political leaders and party heavyweights roll in on the election bus to press the local flesh.

Allocating budgets and efforts to social media is clearly a significant opportunity for any political party, and this is only going to increase as the reaches of social media spread even further into the electorate’s lives.

As I mentioned above, the Conservative Party spent £1.2m on Facebook pay per click advertising during the 2015 election; Labour spent just £16,000. Did that have an impact on the result? I’ll let you judge…


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