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General election countdown – Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems racing to learn digital lessons for electoral success

Likes don’t win elections, people win elections, but less than 80 days before the polls the main political parties are yet to show they have the marketing tricks needed to galvanise online supporters.

Conservative and Labour members are both talking up how their social media efforts will spur them on to glory come polling day on 7 May. It is a stark contrast to five years ago when just 25 per cent of MPs and only one party leader – the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg – were on Facebook. Now, two thirds of MPs and all the party leaders have a Facebook page.

The Conservatives are the performance marketers, focusing on paid media to generate lots of impressions online. While Labour is chasing viral success, using social media to help mobilise supporters for an unprecedented four million doorstep conversations; the truth is the rivals are so focused on realising these objectives that they haven’t realised they also need to be doing what the other is too.

Building trust at scale

Labour is trying to nail the trickier of the two strategies, realising that word of mouth advertising is the most powerful form of persuasion. The party is admittedly financially weaker compared to the big spending Conservatives by a factor of three to one, though insists it has the social media strategy to spur it on to win the tightest battle in generations “conversation by conversation”.

Yet there is little indication this localised approach can take flight at scale for the wired age.

Around 14 per cent of Labour’s Facebook posts in January had paid media spend behind them, whereas the Conservatives more than doubled (31 per cent) that amount in the same period, according to We Are Social. Labour’s efforts have come a long way from the broadcast approach employed five years ago and still it is missing the media firepower to spread its content beyond fans.

“We take a different approach from their high spending ads campaign,” a Labour spokesman said. “Labour is working to out-organise the Tories, because we can’t hope to match the Tories’ spending on online advertising.

“Our primary aim is to engage people, rather than to broadcast at them. Everything we do is focused on winning votes in the real world, by encouraging supporters to take action as a result of our content. In the past year alone, 5.6 million actions have been taken by people on our email list, by sharing messages online, signing petitions and donating.”

Social media's role in the election

The public furore over the Conservatives’ reported £100,000 monthly Facebook bill excited observers about social media’s role in the election. But it amounts to a fraction of the £19.5m the biggest spending political party is tipped to spend, suggesting campaign chiefs see winning gains to be made elsewhere.

What money is being pumped into Facebook is going on video and pushing out more posts throughout the day. Prime minister David Cameron has posted 15 videos on his page since the turn of the year, five times more than rival Edward Miliband, according to Facebook. While it shows a keenness to be more engaging online, the party appears to be out of touch with what its fans actually want.

Around 46 per cent of all posts on the Conservative Facebook page have focused on the election since January – five times the number of its second largest post, reported the social network. However, the most popular piece of content was a video of the prime minister visiting a Sikh temple (above).

The conversational election

Industry observers believe early activities from the Conservatives and Labour are guilty of social media marketing rather than marketing in a social world. Politicians need to answer whether it is better to be liked or talked about.

Simon Francis, director of social communications agency Claremont, said: “At the moment the parties are still setting out their stalls [on policies] so it’s less about engagement and more about getting those messages out there.”

Labour appears to be doing this successfully on Twitter with the party coming out top when using the site to talk to more people more regularly. Those Labour candidates on Twitter collectively send out on average 222 tweets a day in comparison to the 120 and 70 for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats respectively, according to Transmute – a digital agency co-founded by former head of social media for the UK government Tiffany St James and Charlie Southwell.

“The important thing will be what the political parties do with those interactions – both organic and paid – in order to deepen those relationships so that they turn impressions into conversations,” said Francis. “It’s about identifying that difference between what politicians think they need to be talking about on social media and what actually resonates with people.”

It is a thought not lost on those Facebook strategists touting the social network as the true frontline of the election. Speaking at an event last week (19 February) Facebook’s politics specialist for EMEA Elizabeth Linder said the run up to May would encapsulate the first “conversational election” where “conversations and ideas” between politicians and people happen at scale”.

“Elections were the second most talked about topic on Facebook globally in 2013 and the third most talked about last year. People are having these conversations on Facebook and I think in the UK that’s quite obvious in comparison to other countries,” she added.

“People are going to be turning to their friends for the kind of advice a inspiration on who to vote for. The magic is in the power of the influence of friends. It’s a global trend but I think it’s especially exciting here because [Facebook] has such a representative population of the UK and such high penetration in the UK that this makes conversation around politics especially relevant.”

Politicians will struggle to find that exchange without data providing a real-time master view of their campaign. Strong CRM propelled Barack Obama’s re-election to the White House in 2012 and Labour has hinted at a similar strategy is forthcoming with the appointment of the president’s former digital strategist Matthew McGregor.

The disconnect between politics and social media

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are leading the digital race. That honour should be awarded to the Liberal Democrats, the party boasted. It is the one with the “best set of digital tools” all revolving around its NationBuilder local to national campaign manager and voter contact database Connect. It can now put Twitter followers through its email list to quickly target those with the highest Klout score, whether that’s signing petitions or retweeting a hashtag.

The Liberal Democrats are using data more intelligently”, claimed its head of digital communications Bess Mayhew.

“The Conservatives are like the Republicans in the US, they know they have to do something and they’re just splurging money because they’re not sure what they have to do,” she added. “Labour on the other hand has the people from Obama’s campaign and all the hotshots from America over but the problem is they’re trying to run the Obama campaign with Ed Miliband and he simply isn’t the same person so they have the strategy right but they don’t have the right messaging.”

Digital marketing doesn’t work in silo and it’s too early to say whether the Conservatives and Labour believe in it enough to put it on a more even keel with traditional media in their campaign strategies. Both will reveal their hands once Parliament dissolves at the end of the March and their campaigns enter the key phase.

Google and Twitter will likely play a bigger role then, particularly the latter given the timing of its postcode-targeted ads last month. Google was not as forthcoming as Facebook when asked by The Drum how politicians are using its products to win votes.

Politicians, both across the pond and in the UK, are increasingly turning to social platforms to appeal to the younger demographics, whose media consumption is skewed more to the likes of YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms, than traditional press or broadcast outlets. Google has put this year’s general election at the heart of its consumer proposition,

The internet giant’s head of elections Matt Cooke, marketing manager of Google+, said encouraging young people to vote has become part of the company’s culture. “Our main role and purpose when it comes to the UK general election is to raise awareness to young people and who we know are on all our platforms, that the election is coming and that they have the opportunity to take part. Also to point them in the direction to make them more informed and build their opinions around their voting in May.”

In the US president Obama has leveraged YouTube vloggers, each of which command vast youth-geared audiences, to take part in a Q&A session with him – a smart way of tapping into the media consumption habits of younger demographics.

Cooke said this is a technique political parties in the UK are eyeing with interest. “We know political figures here are very interested in seeing if they can replicate that – to see if there is a way for them to engage in an authentic way with young people and YouTube is one of those tools they are aware they know they have to get to grips with,” he added.

There has always been a disconnect between politicians and people though digital has the power to both break and tighten that divide. Political party membership in the UK is at a historical low with around half a million people. In comparison the Facebook likes of the main parties totals at 1.2 million. Social media’s power to influence the election highlighted in the fact that Facebook has 35 million active users in the UK – that’s more than the 29 million people who voted in 2010.

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