What Happens on Social Media, Doesn’t Stay on Social Media

Matt Rhodes

Matt Rhodes, Head of Channel, Content and Data Strategy at ENGINE Creative, explores the key developments in the 2019 General Election digital campaign compared to 2017

The 2017 General Election was a story of money and influence in digital advertising. The Conservative Party far outspent all other parties; Electoral Commission data shows that they spent £2.7m of £4.25m spent by all UK political parties across Facebook, Twitter and Google. Unable to outspend them, the Labour Party showed how it could reach its target audience online through a series of high-profile influencers such as Stormzy; getting not just the reach that the Conservatives could buy, but also the credibility that influencers can bring.

In 2019 it is clear that the parties have moved on and all have upped their digital game. If 2017 was about money and influencers, 2019 is about a more sophisticated understanding of how people behave online and how channels interact with each other.

First, let’s consider the role of Twitter. Since the banning of political and issue-based ads on the platform in early November 2015, how can parties get any meaningful impact beyond their base? And how important is Twitter anyway? Research by the Hansard Society in May 2019 shows that Twitter users are younger and more urban, more left-wing and more Remain than the UK population. Would the Conservative Party even find its audience on the platform? Or does it in fact need to?

What we are seeing on Twitter, especially for the Conservative Party, is a more sophisticated channel strategy; doing something on one channel to reach their audience on another. Posting a video of Boris Johnson answering questions, posting provocative GIFs about Brexit or even changing their username to FactCheckUK. These provoke a significant outrage on Twitter (among those younger, more left-wing, urban and Remain audiences) which then causes the original content to be reported in the press, where the Conservatives do reach their audience. What happens in one channel, reaches their target audience in another.

Second, let’s consider Facebook. The platform took over 75% of digital advertising spend in 2017 and I would expect it to be equally important in 2019. But what is interesting this time is what is happening away from paid activities. We’ve seen a rise in the popularity of Facebook Pages that are not run by the political parties, but that deliver clearly political (and partisan) messaging. From pro-Remain Pages to Corbyn fanatics and the Get Brexit Done-ers. Not only do these Pages exist (and they probably always have) but they now have significant and active followings.

There is no evidence that any political parties are directly working with such Pages, but it is undoubtedly clear that what they do in other channels (from clips from the ITV debates or Andrew Neil interviews to screenshots from Twitter) are turned into shareable content and memes that these Pages pump out and that are then picked up by followers, activists and others across the country who spread them further. A consideration from political parties is no longer just about delivering soundbites for the 6 and the 10, but how they enable the meme-able content that these pages can share and that get shared onwards. Devolving responsibility for their reach and influence to diverse and unconnected channels but delivering increased reach and credibility through them.

The 2019 General Election is less about spend and influencers (that has become table stakes); it is about a more sophisticated understanding of how channels work, where audiences are and how to reach and influence them. There is much that corporate brands can learn from this; from thinking about channels not in isolation, but by understanding the interplay between them.

Matt Rhodes is the Head of Channel, Content and Data Strategy at ENGINE Creative.