When Barack Obama won his first Presidential victory in 2008, it was regarded as the first election that was won by social media. Whether this is quite true or not can be questioned – in 2008, social media adoption was obviously much less than it is now; also how one communication channel can take the credit for the victory seems a little far-fetched. But what is clear is that Obama was able to engage traditionally disenfranchised voters via social and turn that support into votes.
That is the size of the prize.
In the 2015 UK General Election, social media can really play a part in a political campaign. So, how have the four main parties used social media, what are they getting right and what are they getting wrong? To save any accusations of bias, the parties selected are the four most popular on the BBC Election Poll tracker, and the parties are listed in alphabetical order!
The Conservatives have a strong social media presence – 464k Facebook followers (the largest of the parties featured here) and a strong presence on Twitter too: 155k followers and David Cameron has just short of 1 million followers himself. The approach from the Conservatives is to provide regular updates on the campaign and use images and video which deliver stronger engagement. They have also famously spent big on Facebook advertising to the tune of £100k a month, although the ads themselves were not particularly ground-breaking. The key finding for the Conservatives is the language they use which is somehow too formal to sit comfortably in the social media environment.
Labour have a full 100k less followers on Twitter and Facebook than the Conservatives. But they engage with their audience in a different way. They use less stuffy language and have even branched out onto Instagram: recognising that images tell stories of their own, although they only have 400 followers mainly due to a sporadic posting frequency. Labour have had some successful engagement on social media due to the sheer number of candidates on social media – they also seem to have a content plan, with an objective to dominate the conversation on key issues like the NHS. They encourage calls to action too, with a request to share or use the hashtag on most posts. But there is also a rather dull countdown to the election: if you follow a political party on social media, you probably know when the election is.
The Liberal Democrats have the smallest Facebook and Twitter audiences of all of the parties featured – 112k on Facebook and 95k on Twitter. But that’s not to say that they are not ambitious: Nick Clegg has said ‘In the final week of the campaign, two million voters will hear our message on Facebook, on YouTube and on social media’, although the press office had to clarify that a high proportion of this will be via social media advertising. They have a more relaxed tone of voice than the two main parties and have encouraged use of hashtags, a good way of increasing their outreach, but has also attracted some criticism which has been ignored. I have liked their short informal videos featuring Clegg on his campaign bus; I found the one where he read out mean tweets particularly good, although I still felt that his personality was still being subdued.
For a party which is currently polling at around 14% of the vote, its social media presence is significant – it has more Facebook followers than Labour and the Lib Dems combined. Social media has a tradition of challenging authority and UKIP’s challenge to the established political establishment is almost tailor-made for social media. They use call to actions well and make a point of trying to engage with their audience, rather than just broadcasting their messages. However, UKIP are no strangers to social media gaffes, so spending time apologising for posts can confuse and dilute the message.
What the vast majority of posts seem to lack is an insight into the personalities of the individuals at the top of the parties. One of the reasons why Obama was so successful on social media in 2008 and 2012 was because he was prepared to share some of his personality amongst the political messages. For example, he took to Reddit to engage with younger voters via an AMA (Ask Me Anything), a risky but ultimately successful campaign.
There are so many opportunities to engage with audiences: they don’t stop at Facebook and Twitter and they must not stop at constant campaign messages. If social media is to play a role in elections, these are lessons that all parties need to learn.