Has this General Election marked a turning point in how political parties market themselves? The press would have you believing that social media has hammered the final nail into traditional media’s coffin. Only last week, the FT declared that the parties were ‘weaponising digital media … as polling day nears’.
Certainly the topline figures look impressive. Almost a million people are following David Cameron on Facebook, almost half a million Ed Milliband, a quarter of a million Nick Clegg and around 200,000 Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage. The Tories alone are reputedly spending £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising …
But is there any evidence that all these efforts are creating real engagement? Does social media really matter in politics?
Weber Shandwick recently published a voter study in conjunction with Research Now that suggests reports of a social takeover may be a little premature. The study asked the question “Thinking about the whole of the General Election campaign between now and the 7th May to what extent are the following likely to grab your attention?” followed by a list of 14 media channels that they may have been exposed to during the campaign. The least likely to engage, surprise surprise, is ‘telephone canvassing’ (9% agreed that would grab their attention). At the other end of the scale is ‘television’ (by which I guess they mean appearances, debates etc rather than commercials which aren’t allowed in the UK); 57% agreed TV would catch their eye. Social media languishes at just 22% and email at 17% just ahead of ‘taxi driver conversations’ but behind ‘billboard advertising’, ‘leaflets’ and radio’ amongst others.
So social has a part to play in attracting voters but realistically only as part of a wider channel mix and engagement strategy. But what about its ability to spread the word?
Another study from the US last summer suggests that users of Facebook and Twitter may actually be reluctant to share political opinions online. The survey was conducted last year by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with Rutgers University in New Jersey in the wake of the Snowden surveillance revelations. Of the 1,801 adults surveyed, 86 percent said they’d be willing to discuss their views about government surveillance if it came up at various in-person scenarios, such as at work or at a restaurant with friends. But just 42 percent of Facebook or Twitter users said they would be willing to post online about it. Granted that’s just one survey and just one issue but it suggests that unless people know their audience agrees, they are likely to avoid discussing or sharing anything contentious. In other words, we may be more comfortable sharing videos of talking dogs than in actually talking politics online.
So what does any of that tell us? It perhaps just reinforces the idea that, as with other sectors, in politics social has a role to play as part of an omni-channel strategy just as some of the traditional options do too; judging by the amount of direct mail and door drops received at our house politicians are savvy enough to realise that, even if their budgets won’t always stretch to the big outdoor campaigns of years gone by.