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For all their tweeting, our MPs are missing the point of social media and failing to properly engage voters

Jane Wilson is a communication and reputation consultant. She is a former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

The prime minister's Twitter account

If you lived only in the digital world during last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, you would have been hanging out the saltire bunting before going to bed on 18 September – such was the social media tsunami of pro-SNP support. However, the real world clearly hadn’t read the online news and the union was preserved by a bigger majority than even the polls suggested in the days before.

So, is the lesson from this that politicians shouldn’t focus on social media to drive their political campaigning? And that we should discount political social media stats when predicting the outcome of a vote? The answer is that it depends which statistics you pay attention to and how you engage with digital followers.

The key to what works perhaps lies in the phrase ‘Involvement through Empowerment’ – the motto of the 2008 Barack Obama campaign which is credited as being the first political campaign in history to really harness the power of social media to get people engaged. The Obama campaign reached 5 million supporters on 15 different social networks over the course of campaign season, so it’s no wonder that Labour has tried to recreate some of that magic by hiring Matthew McGregor, the former head of Obama’s ‘rapid response’ digital team.

MacGregor’s involvement already seems to be paying dividends. Of Labour’s 217,686 followers, 31,556 of them (nearly one in five), are also actively engaged and talking about them. This compares to 6.5 per cent of Conservative followers and only 3.9 per cent of the Liberal Democrat follower base talking about them. The Conservatives may have the most ‘likes’ but there’s no evidence that this is linked to either activism or support at the polls.

These statistics come from a study by my colleagues at MHP, looking at how MPs use social media and where the lost opportunity lies. It highlights two key issues, the first of which is the fact that most MPs' social media drug of choice is Twitter. The upside of Twitter is that it’s fast, immediate and is used by media to drive coverage. But it’s not where the voter volume lies – more than 30 million UK residents have Facebook profiles, compared to just over 18 million using Twitter.

Secondly, like many who use Twitter, MPs tend to talk – not engage. They are failing to spot the importance of listening and engagement as tools to drive support and instead fall back on a 140 character ‘broadcast’.

This close to the election, it’s not clear how much headway can be made by any of the parties through innovative and engaging use of digital, but for political and digi geeks, this report makes interesting reading.

Jane Wilson is managing director, corporate affairs at MHP Communications