Social Media and the Snap Election

Weber Shandwick analyses the use of social media by the leading political parties during the 2017 General Election campaign.

With all the noise in 2015 around the intertwining of social media and elections, one could be forgiven for thinking we’d have to wait until the 2020 election for a true reflection of political and digital engagement working together. Theresa May’s snap election has put paid to that and, a few weeks on from the election announcement, patterns are emerging within the political parties as the social media battlegrounds take shape. Some to be expected, others less so. The dominant view online is one of a right wing shift on Facebook with the Tories and UKIP utilising its targeting power, while (as expected) Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken up residence as the king of Twitter.

But what are the niche tactics that parties are adopting through the big social media channels this time around and is that an accurate view or just social stereotyping?  And what does all of this mean for the future of how politics and social media work with each other, particularly post US-election where the debate across social networks was more fierce and polarised than ever.

It’s a badly worn secret that data tracking and analysis are playing an ever growing (and often quite subversive) role in the future of electioneering. As more data is collected from consumer habits on and offline, data is playing a hugely important and sophisticated role in how political parties campaign and reach voters, whether they like it or not.

So how are the main UK parties gearing up online to the main event on 8th June?

The Conservatives are practiced and proficient in social media territory, particularly targeted mass-outreach on Facebook. They have brought back their key digital strategists from the last election, Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds in the UK, with former Obama adviser, Jim Messina in the US. They have the budget and the data to allow them to reach the voters they most need to persuade. Most of this engagement will be in the form of paid activity, as Conservative supporters are historically much less vocal across social media than their Labour counterparts. Organic sharing of centrally generated content is less common in Conservative circles, hence the focus on paid targeting.

The PM’s core staff appears not particularly fond of Twitter, and refuse to use it in a traditional ‘social’ way – engaging and reacting to other users. Instead they pump out ‘strong and stable’ messaging (in 31% of posts) and glossily packaged videos of the PM, alongside anti-Corbyn content. This might not be the most forward-looking use of the platform, (the centralised control and lack of flexibility will be a turnoff for some consumers), but as a battering ram approach it is undoubtedly effective.

It could be argued that Labour’s use of social media this time around has been about learning the lessons from 2015. The 2017 version of ‘Labour social’ certainly appears more refined, focusing on specific demographics of voters with more targeted messaging. The use of Facebook specifically, rather than an over-reliance on the “echo-chamber” of Twitter is playing a prominent role in Labour’s campaign this time around.

While the Conservatives invested £1.2m in Facebook advertising in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, Labour spent just £16,000 on the platform. This time around, there are reports of the party pumping up to £1m into Facebook advertising, so it has learned its lesson. Labour has also created its own digital tool ‘Promote’, putting targeted social media marketing at the heart of its general election campaign. This will enable the party to identify specific constituency voters for candidates to target with relevant messaging. In terms of content, the approach is clean, consistent and there is good use of video engagement.

One stark contrast between the main parties is the difference in prominence given to party leaders in their core messaging. The Conservatives are heavily focused on promoting Theresa May. Reporters have enjoyed playing ‘spot the Conservative logo’ on campaign collateral, as it is often so small when compared to previous campaigns. In contrast, Labour are giving primacy to the party and key issues, no doubt informed by severe concerns about Corbyn’s popularity. As the Telegraph have referenced, ‘Seventy-five per cent of posts from the Conservatives have mentioned either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn by name since the election was announced, compared with just 19 per cent of posts from the opposition party’s accounts’.

UKIP are well known for having a large following on Facebook. In fact they have more followers than the Conservatives. But just how coordinated is their social media activity? The content approach comes across as rushed and cluttered in a slightly tabloid-esque fashion. Lots of #Britaintogether and cobbled together infographics. Much of their content is focused on pushing TV appearances of Paul Nuttall, with imagery of their leader along with swathes of purple and yellow branding. Like the Conservative Party, UKIP supporters are less likely to share or engage with social content from the party. It’s interesting to note that UKIP is ordering its candidates to shut down their own social media accounts because they are causing the party grief. This self-awareness does not, however, equate to a cohesive social strategy overall.

The Liberal Democrats’ approach flatters to deceive. At first glance, it all seems quite active. They use Twitter in a more conventional way, pushing out posts and interesting content (including some engaging infographics), but not much of it is being done in the name of true engagement or two-way in its nature. The Lib Dems don’t have the financial clout of the Conservatives or Labour in being able to target potential voters. This makes it surprising that they are not fully exploiting their position as the only party that want to stop a so-called “hard Brexit”. Brexit has featured in half of all Lib Dem Facebook posts, but only seven per cent of posts on Twitter.

SNP enjoys its biggest support in the 16-24 year old bracket – a reflection of good use of social media, and were also the first party to do a live Facebook Q&A with Nicola Sturgeon. So they clearly have good intentions when it comes to social, and a dedicated team of bright young people who turn around content and graphics really quickly. A clever tactic the SNP have introduced through social has targeted its members and supporters. Upon receiving an email from SNP before the local elections, you were instructed to open it, pop in your post code and it gave you the ranking vote strategy for Single Transferrable Vote – so which SNP candidate first, second etc. This content was shareable too – a unique and engaging way of maximising your vote.

As for the Greens, they have emerged as the third most popular party on Twitter and Facebook in terms of true engagement with followers, with posts about the party’s local election successes garnering the most likes and shares across both platforms showing that they have a commitment to using the channels to truly engage with voters.

This election, therefore, looks like a social evolution for the main political parties from 2015, rather than a revolution. Lacking funds, capacity and digital expertise, it seems the snap election hasn’t meant ‘snap chat’ for the main political parties this time around.