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The Facebook factor in politics: why big ideas are still more important than big data

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The long reach of Facebook offers fantastic targeting with nearly 2bn people signed up across the planet and half of them using it daily. In the UK, its influence is also huge: 30m of us are on it. Its sheer size epitomises the power of social media for granular targeting with personalised messaging which leads many to believe that this is now the key battleground upon which political elections are either won or lost.

Michael Moszynski

Expenditure figures from the main parties certainly seem to back this up: in the 2017 election, for example, I am reliably informed that the Conservatives will be spending just £700k on traditional posters with much of the balance of their £16m budget intended for Facebook.

When I worked with Lynton Crosby running the Conservative General Election campaign in 2005 we went for a targeted approach, focusing resources on 165 seats or roughly 25% of the country. In those days we only had the benefit of localizing ads via local press, posters and direct mail, but nonetheless we ran over 3,000 tailored pieces of communication.

However, today with Facebook political parties have the opportunity to be strategic on a micro level, enabling hundreds of different messages to be delivered to individual recipients based on wide-ranging criteria. It could be anything - post code, sex, age, educational background, leisure interests, news feed preferences - and any combination you choose.

This all poses an important question of course: is micro targeting with different messages actually effective? The Lib Dems are past masters at saying one thing in Labour-leaning constituencies and the complete opposite in ones where the Conservatives are the main opponents, and if this is the key marker of success one must ask why they are still not in power?

Last year, I was involved in the referendum campaign and we commissioned a ‘mass observation’ technique to speak to people outside of London about their voting intentions. The insight this gave, allowed us to calibrate the opinion polling data and predict in the media that Vote Leave would win by 52-53%. So, yes we use data science but we also apply the subjective art of behavioural analysis to come to our forecasts (which also included predicting an outright Conservative win in single figures in 2015 – they won by 6. And that the Yes vote in Scotland would not get more than 45% - they got 44.7%).

My own view is that data and the social media from where it is harvested, is most effective to reinforce what people already think, which in 2017 will be quite useful as it is in effect a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) election. Labour needs to overcome the dampening effect of Corbyn on their turnout and the Conservative Party needs to persuade its voters to bother going to the polls when it is clear that they are going to win (in hindsight maybe the cock-up over the social care policy has done just that for them?).

Facebook is excellent for talking to your existing supporters and getting them to pass on and amplify messages to their own followers. Therefore, when it comes to the challenge of ‘Get Out The Vote’, the platform is an important ally but it will never be a silver bullet. Each party has access to the same social channels and therefore the same targeting opportunities and consequently any competitive advantage by using it more effectively than a rival I contend will be short-lived.

The reason is that the public work on a completely different wave form to Westminster or the pollsters. Their view of who they will vote for is formed over quite a long time and from many different sources. I believe snippets picked up about Jeremy Corbyn, such as not singing the national anthem, will be far more influential in suppressing the Labour vote in the Midlands and the North than a thousand tweets emanating from the Conservatives. The worst thing a pundit, party or marketer can do is underestimate the intelligence of the public.

A political party is like a consumer brand: it is what it does and says and how it behaves. Voters absorb all this over time, so in the case of the election a short seven week campaign will not dramatically change their views. Although the Conservative framing of the vote between “Strong Stable Leadership” versus “Corbyn Chaos” is brilliant, its strength is that it pithily sums up the existing mood of the country rather than being an agent of persuasion.

Labour is the party that needs to change perceptions and to do that you still need a big idea not just big data. Re-using the “For the many not the few” slogan from Tony Blair and retreading an ad concept from Margaret Thatcher (“…holding Britain back”) does not strike me as the epitome of new creative thinking.

The truth is the Conservatives’ triumph was in the bag before the election campaign began - whether it is fought on Facebook or on a billboard. I continue to predict, as I have done since the day the election was called, that the Conservatives will get a three figure majority, despite the latest YouGov poll which shows the gap between Labour and May narrowing to 5%. In the end the scale of victory will in part be due to the ‘Facebook Factor’ which, with Lynton flinging his dead cats on our kitchen tables across the country, is going to be played with aplomb.

Michael Moszynski is chief executive officer at LONDON Advertising.