General Election 2015: Why the Conservatives, Labour, SNP and others must master mobile

This article is the first in a series from global marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi assessing key aspects of the main political parties’ digital strategies in the run up to the General Election.

The Conservatives' mobile app

Mobile is a bag of tricks the political parties have not yet mastered, according to DigitasLBi’s head of mobile Ilicco Elia. But give them time, and personalised, targeted mobile communications might one day cut through where nothing else can.

At the last general election, the iPad was two weeks old in the UK. This time around, it’s a key element of a major shift that has seen mobile devices become our research tools of choice.

Smartphone usage among Britons of voting age, meanwhile, has mushroomed from roughly 20 per cent to more than 70 per cent in five years. Where in 2010 mobile constituted a cool, niche channel, mobile in 2015 is a medium through which every message of any importance will inevitably flow.

Among 16-24-year-olds, most of them first-time voters, 40 per cent now get their news through their phones, compared to four per cent of those in the 55-plus range. If there is a real desire to reach young voters, mobile, rather than traditional digital channels, ought to be the focal point.

For political parties, mobile sites are vital. It doesn’t take a highly-paid political strategist to realise that apps are a golden way to maintain an on-going, long-term relationship with supporters.

Disappointingly, this time around, apps still aren’t an integral part of reaching the electorate. Gallingly conspicuous by its absence is any evidence of targeting or personalisation of mobile messaging. On the positive side the uptake of responsive design has helped parties’ mobile user experience enormously.

We’ve taken a look at their efforts to date and found some reasonable work and plenty of room for improvement. In our initial assessment we were pleasantly surprised. What stood out most was how the design language of each of the respective sites seem to talk to a cliché of their audience, ensuring a committed voter for each party will feel at home.

Conservatives

The Tory mobile strategy aims to make mobile activism as easy as possible for its supporters. Navigation on the mobile site works well, but their content lacks depth, with only the shortest, most bite-sized nuggets of policy content.

Their app is a social network, again aimed at encouraging supporters and volunteers to share content around the major social networks. The content itself is rehashed from the main Tory website, so social here feels like an amplifier of standard messages.

Labour

The Labour site is well designed and has an interesting 'personalised manifesto'. You choose what is most important to you, share your postcode and your personalised manifest complete with 'local data' is delivered. This has excellent potential and should help to better connect with voters, but the degree of personalisation and the limited local content held the idea back.

Labour has quietly abandoned its iCampaign app of 2010, leaving it app-less. It could be argued that a dedicated app wouldn’t contribute much to a six-week election when there is plenty else to be done. Equally, it could be argued that parties shouldn’t fire up their digital strategies just in time for election season.

Liberal Democrats

As with Labour, there is no dedicated app. On mobile the party’s site leads on updates from promising Lib Dem constituencies, as well as manifesto pledges dressed up as news stories. I would have expected the manifesto to be front and centre as it is on the other main party sites. Having said that, smartphones may not be best suited to these long form political documents. This highlights a weakness in standard responsive design, which tends to promote simply converting desktop sites to mobile.

According to our research, based on favourites and RTs, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru are the parties least engaged with on Twitter, and Nick Clegg is no mobile natural, sending 47 per cent of his tweets from his desktop – the most of any party leader.

Green Party

In 2010, the Green party was notably proud of its new mobile app, which allowed users to assess how closely aligned their views were to the Greens’ policies. This time around, there’s no app, though the party’s mobile site is a good example of a clean responsive site. The Greens have created a 'mini' and 'youth' targeted manifestos and seem to be the only party with a sign language version of the manifesto, however there is also an over reliance on PDFs to deliver the manifestos.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru has no mobile site and can’t be found in app stores. Justifying the investment required to optimise for the mobile audience can be difficult, but with 35 per cent of Wales web traffic from smartphones or tablets, it is essential if your voice is to be heard across the electorate.

On the plus side Leanne Wood is the most mobile-happy party leader in social terms, making 70 per cent of her tweets from an iPhone.

SNP

The SNP has no mobile site, which just goes to show it’s not a requirement to achieve a large swing, but it does seem out of place for a party that promotes the importance of connecting with voters.

A basic app, launched in late-March, offers contact details for politicians, as well as news and opportunities to get involved, but misses out on the opportunity to build loyalty and advocacy for the fastest growing political party in the country.

UKIP

UKIP’s mobile site is a messy affair, with an inconsistent layout and large swathes of text. The main navigation menu is inelegant and some pages render poorly, requiring horizontal scrolling.

The version of their app available at the start of the campaign was a charmless affair, but an updated version, made available last weekend, is more polished, thought it has yet to be fully updated with the appropriate content.

Happily the major parties have realised that offering decent mobile usability on their websites is absolutely essential, even if it’s still a far cry from the mobile-first approach that a forward-thinking mindset might dictate. The parties need to grasp mobile’s full significance and targeted campaigning potential.

More broadly there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially with regards to creating and targeting content. And while apps might seem like a luxury in a relatively short lived election campaign, building sustainable, long-term, and conversational relationships are an app’s greatest strength and would surely benefit all parties.

DigitasLBi has also carried out a social data study which reveals surprising facts about the political parties and their supporters. For more information visit www.wearewhatsnext.com

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