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May 05

Category: In the News, Social Media

It was hyped as the first ever social media general election, where interactions with voters across social networks and via new media would radically affect the outcome. The reality has turned out, though, to be quite different.

Yes, there has been an increase in political discussion on social media but generally the parties have focused on old-fashioned broadcast marketing: posting their billboard images on social networks, placing lots of pay per click adverts and constantly posting updates about the latest location of their election bus tour.

Even the TV debates – watched by more than 8 million people, and therefore surely one of the best opportunities for the parties to engage a new audience – were characterised online mostly by jokes and memes rather than serious politics. Some of the most retweeted comments during the debates concerned a man’s moustache, not any of the parties’ policies.

Grasping the power of social networks

The real power of social media is not, of course, in the number of tweets, the number of impressions of a Facebook ad or the number of views of a YouTube video, but in user engagement measured by content ‘spreadability’.

President Obama’s much talked about campaigns in 2008 and 2012 understood this. His campaign utilised the peer-to-peer nature of social networks not to spread an HQ-devised message so much, but to encourage personalised endorsements. Obama’s campaign achieved what most marketers dream about obtaining for their products: voters / consumers spontaneously endorsing the candidate / product across their social network to their friends, family and contacts.

The data from 2012 is hugely impressive: 30 percent of US web users reported that they were urged to vote via social media by family, friends or other network connections; 20 percent actively encouraged others to vote; and 22 percent posted details of how they voted, so it has been done before!

Stuck in their ways

Despite the Labour party recruiting David Axelrod, a former Obama advisor, there has been no mass movement – for any of the parties – positively evangelising about the merits of their policies or endorsing their views across social media.

On the contrary, the most prevalent use of social media by the parties has been to simply use it as an additional route (on top of radio, TV and print) to push out their messages. Probably the most common sight over the past few months has been a party tweeting about its latest billboard poster.

On the face of it, the parties have fairly large audiences for these kinds of broadcast messages, though even Labour’s 210k followers pales into insignificance compared to major British brands like Burberry (3.9m), ASOS (844K) and even Marks & Spencers (405k).

Despite these followers, however, the extent to which these types of messages spread out beyond already enthusiastic supporters is questionable. BBC Trending have reported on how difficult it is for messages to break out of the social media ‘filter bubble’ – where content ends up only being seen only by those already holding those views because of the way the social networks’ algorithms are set up. This means that, unless it is paid for, party content may struggle to break out into the mainstream.

This reliance on paid for advertising and broadcast marketing is possibly a problem for the parties though. A recent survey from the Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 14 percent of web users trust advertising. Therefore, the parties should be, as Obama did in the US, seeking to harness the peer-to-peer power of social networks and creating online advocates who are willing to publicly endorse them to their social contacts.

Some good attempts…

The parties have shown signs of recognising the importance of social media. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have attempted to harness the power of peer-to-peer social endorsements through their ‘I’m Voting Labour’ and ‘Share the Facts’ apps respectively. Neither has really taken off outside of the most ardent pre-existing party supporters, however.

Only one party, the Scottish National Party, has had any real success encouraging its supporters to publicly endorse them online though – potentially because, with the SNP high in the Scottish polls, there is less perceived risk of stigma from publically supporting the party. Proudly proclaiming that you’re a Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem etc. hasn’t (yet) caught on.

Why haven’t the politicians caught on?

Perhaps the failure of efforts to construct a wave of popular social media support has as much to do with the British psyche as it does with the old fashioned marketers heading up the campaign departments of the main parties.

Maybe the parties’ social media efforts have failed to cut through for the very same reasons that Have I Got News for You regular achieves more than 5 million viewers, while Question Time chugs along with a few hundred thousand. Some commentators go so far as to suggest that the British love of comedy and satire means that any widespread displays of serious political passion are unlikely. The result is that the most political acts on social media during the election have been funny memes or photoshopped election posters.

Or perhaps there is simply a lack courage among the politicos to try out new things and to be bold with their online engagement? For all the potential, there are of course many opportunities for the much-feared gaffe. So afraid were UKIP, for example, that they issued a note to members late last year warning them away from social media all together!

What is clear is that none of the parties’ efforts will be being used as great examples of successful digital marketing anytime soon. Has this been the first ‘social media election’? Probably not, though it’s a step forward from 2010.

Let’s hope that in 2020 the main parties give 3Search a call and we can introduce them to some top digital marketers. Are you looking for experts in marketing and communication to work on your next campaign? Get in touch with us via 3search.co.uk to discuss what we can do for your business.