Social media and the referendum: There have been millions of posts, but have they actually changed people's minds?

Jon Davie is UK CEO at Zone, the digital marketing agency which counts Coca-Cola GB, Tesco, Barratt Homes and Prostate Cancer UK among its clients. Jon writes a monthly content marketing column for The Drum.

Whatever your view, there’s one thing about the Scottish Independence Referendum that both sides can agree on – the debate has energised domestic politics and engaged people like no campaign in recent memory.

How much difference have the millions of campaign posts made?

At time of writing the result is still in the balance, but whichever side emerges victorious, it’s been pretty extraordinary to see normal people arguing over the merits of currency union or the arcane details of EU accession treaties.

The debate isn’t just taking place in the pubs of Perth and the cafes of Kilmarnock. Social media has become a key battleground, and despite the Better Together campaign’s support from high-profile figures including JK Rowling, it’s generally acknowledged that Yes has been more successful in this space.

The power of social to engage grassroots activists is nothing new – a cutting-edge digital operation was widely seen as a factor in Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. But I think there’s an important distinction between activating existing supporters and changing the minds of the other side.

A quick search on the #IndyRef hashtag illustrates the point. Nationalists share content that reinforces their existing opinions; Unionists post links that validate their established views. Both sides make claim and counter-claim, but nobody ever changes their mind.

Digital evangelists like to extol the virtues of the web as a platform for the exchange of ideas. But the human tendency to selectively filter information that reinforces what we already think – what sociologists call confirmation bias – seems to be exaggerated by social media. People choose individuals to follow and links to share based on their existing views, and in doing so, those views become even more deeply entrenched.

This has implications for the way brands behave in social media. The customers who choose to follow, like or subscribe to our channels, by definition, are people who already have a predisposition towards the brand. And most social media strategies are based on using these individuals as advocates – creating ‘word of mouth’ recommendations that are more trusted than traditional advertising.

But if customers only seek out content that reinforces what they already believe, the scope of such strategies is limited. Lots of marketing briefs ask us to deliver change – to reach new audiences, to launch new products or to create new beliefs about a brand. To get around the self-serving confirmation bias, we need a different approach.

Whisper it quietly, but that approach looks a lot like traditional advertising. We need to reach new audiences – which means using paid media to go beyond our existing fans. We need to jolt the audience out of their unconscious bias – which means using interruptive formats. And we need to get the message across clearly and unambiguously, which means cutting through with great creative.

Going back to events in Scotland, both Yes and Better Together have spent seven figure sums on advertising. But it’s the Yes campaign which has crafted the sharper creative – so perhaps it’s no surprise it is winning the battle in our newsfeeds too.

Jon Davie is managing director at Zone

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.