Mark Ritson: ​How to win an election in seven complex steps

My money is on the Conservatives to win this week’s general election, for the simple reason that they have mastered Facebook advertising and its ability to prioritise the voters who matter most.

electionAs we head into the week of the general election the race seems to be narrowing. Just like the 2015 election there are various estimates of who will win what but the polls appear to suggest a hung parliament becoming far more likely than we would have imagined six weeks ago.

Possibly. But if I was a betting man I’d have a few quid on the Tories to squeeze past the all-important majority of 326 to retain control of the country. The reason I am so bullish about the prospects of prime minister May is not down to her leadership, or her policies. I have no clue about how any of those stack up.

I think the Conservatives might win a majority on Thursday because they are better at marketing. Specifically, digital marketing. More specifically, Facebook advertising. And even more specifically, because Tom Edmunds and Craig Elder are smarter than me, you and probably most other marketers in the country.

READ MORE: Tanya Joseph – Ruthless targeting is key to modern elections

I don’t know Edmonds or Elder but if they are as clever as I suspect they are, here’s how they will win the election for the Conservatives.

Step 1: Spend it all on Facebook

You will have the press and PR teams in place. You’ll also be spending the usual amount on outdoor media and a bit of print. But that’s really there to send very vanilla, general messages to the electorate and misdirect everyone that this is the main campaign. The real money will go on digital and specifically onto Facebook advertising.

In 2015 the Conservative Party outspent Labour seven-fold on social media advertising and 50 times more than the Lib Dems. The Vote Leave campaign that secured Brexit spent 98% of its £6.8m budget on digital media (and most of that on Facebook); the same proportional spend should win the election once again later this week.

In the era of dark Facebook political advertising you can block your rival completely.

Step 2: Geo-targeting

There might be 650 constituencies at stake on Thursday when Britain goes to the polls but the reality is that 85% of them are locked up as safe seats. This election will be won or lost on the 100 or so constituencies where two or more possible parties could win on Thursday. The first and most important strategic decision is to devote all of your digital budget to this small slice of Britain.

It’s here that two of Facebook’s big advantages come into play – its geo-location capabilities and social ubiquity make it the ultimate constituency winning tool. More than 60% of the UK population check their Facebook page, but it’s the small proportion of swing voters doing this in the key marginal seats that matter.

In 2015 the Conservative Party was able to serve ads to 80% of Facebook users in key marginal seats according to Facebook’s own data. If the party can again reach 80% of the users in the 20% of constituencies that matter they will win a majority.

Step 3: Micro-timing

Similar to geo-targeting, there is a wealth of data to support the idea that most voters have decided who they will support many months before the election was even called. But that’s not the point. By the very definition of their decision, these voters should be completely ignored.

Around 20% of the voting public will make up their mind in the three weeks prior to election day. Given the close nature of the swing seats we are targeting in step 2 this makes this small minority of voters incredibly important. This election campaign might have run for two months, but the digital campaign should last about 20 days.

Step 4: Segmentation

Now we get to the good part. If Facebook has one over-riding advantage over all others it’s the ability to segment at an incredible level of granularity. This enables a smart political campaign to estimate both the likely voting intention of the Facebook user and the main psychographic drivers that do and not motivate their thinking.

This is the part that many marketers find contentious. They question whether Facebook data can really predict who you will vote for and what issues you care about. But they miss the manner in which psychographics are typically used.

It’s crucial here to combine your own large, representative survey of the British electorate (in which you ask for voting intention and general attitudes) with all the demographic and psychographic data points that Facebook collects for its users. By segmenting the electorate using your own data on voting intention and drivers, you can then extrapolate this small sample to the voters in all the swing seats you intend to target using Facebook’s granular user data to identify them.

So, for example, I might identify a psychographic segment called ‘Worried Brexiteers’ (aged 50+, male, married, children, home owners, did not go to university, religious, small business owners, car lovers) who usually don’t vote but, because of economic concerns about the implications of Brexit, are very likely to be considering a vote for the Conservative Party.

Or perhaps I uncover another group I call the ‘Skeptical Socialists’ who are traditional Labour voters (aged 30 to 40, graduate, tablet owner, in a relationship, recent home buyer, football supporter, runner, engineer or healthcare, mid-manager) who would never vote Tory but has deep concerns about the current Labour front bench and its ability to manage the country. Imagine 20 or 30 of these psychographic segments and the ability to identify them with relative precision across all the 100 marginal seats.

It’s suddenly possible to promote military spending to John Smith at 25 Eden Drive while telling Jane Jones at 24 you will keep a keen eye on the budget.

Step 5: Targeting

Traditionally, in an election campaign a party inevitably had to explain itself to the whole nation. With Facebook, however, all kinds of new possibilities present themselves. First, we can ignore the vast majority of voters, even in a target constituency, because we already know we have either got them or lost them. Instead we will target voters that are still likely to be making up their mind and still possible to convert to our cause.

But let’s not stop there. While we try to get undecideds to vote for us, we will be spending at least as much effort and budget on those that will vote for our rivals and persuading them not to bother. Much has been written about how the Trump campaign managed to persuade many Hillary voters to stay home in the US election last year.

A vote for the opposition not placed is just as valuable as one placed in your favour. In a change from the norm, expect the Facebook political advertising this week to be as much negative as positive because a significant proportion is designed to demotivate voters.

Not that you will see much of the Facebook advertising in question. Unlike traditional political advertising, which everyone gets to see and critique, Facebook ads are ‘dark’. That means other voters, other parties, even other supporters have no clue exactly who you are targeting with your ads. Never mind under-the-radar, Facebook advertising has no radar.

Provided you don’t share the various videos you are showing on Facebook (and, ever the pros, the Conservative Party has steadfastly refused to reveal how many videos it has made or what they consist of) you can keep your rivals and everyone else completely in the dark. By the time the full scale and complexity of your Facebook advertising becomes apparent the election will have been decided.

That cloak of darkness has another big advantage for a party with big funds and most of it devoted to a digital spend. You can outbid your rivals for the same voter and all they will know about it is that the price has gone up. They will not know who is doing the targeting or what you are saying to the voters they are trying to target.

Forget the ancient, outdated idea of political equality in which everyone gets the same allocation of party broadcasts. In the era of dark Facebook political advertising you can block your rival completely. You get to shout, they stay silent.

Step 6: Messaging

Remember those detailed psychographic segments we built back in step 4? Well now we get to use them. Facebook doesn’t just offer a granular approach to segmentation, it also allows you to message them in the same micro-manner. Remember the ‘Worried Brexiteer’? How about we serve him a digital video showing Jeremy Corbyn being soft and all over the place on Brexit:

Remember the ‘Skeptical Socialists’ that w​ere worried about whether the Labour front bench was up to it? Let’s show ​them​ Diane Abbott making an arse of herself again ​and encourage ​them​ to stay in bed on 8 June:

The advantage of dark advertising should not be underestimated here either. Because no-one else sees the ads you are running you finally have a politically expedient way to say one thing to one voter while promoting another to someone else down the same street. It’s suddenly possible to promote military spending to John Smith at 25 Eden Drive while telling Jane Jones at number 24 you will keep a keen eye on all spending in the budget next year.

Step 7: Misdirect in victory

The next bit is crucial. As the dust settles on Friday morning and the champagne runs dry you need to keep your digital heads down. No boasting about your role in the victory. No conference presentations later in the year showing how you did it. You pack up your stuff, delete everything and rely on those impregnable walled gardens at Facebook to keep your success a secret. Sure, the Electoral Commission will be able to work out how much money you spent on digital media but no-one, if you keep your traps shut, will believe that it made the difference between success and failure.

They didn’t join the dots in the 2015 election from the massive digital difference between the Conservative Party and everyone else to the the subsequent ‘surprising’ victory. They missed it when Vote Leave spent almost every penny on targeted Facebook advertising and managed to sneak past the post and trigger Brexit. They still don’t think it worked for Trump despite the mounting evidence that without the digital difference he would have fallen short. And people won’t see it on Friday morning as long as we all point to the powerful message of the prime minister and join the choir of voices questioning how the polls could have got it so wrong. Again.

Of course, the one big caveat in all of this is the assumption that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have not​ mastered the dark arts of political advertising on Facebook to the same degree​. ​Apparently the Labour Party has confirmed they have more than 1,200 adverts in circulation which suggest they too may be playing the Facebook card this time around. ​But my money is ​still ​on ​Edmonds and Elder and ​the ​likelihood that the ​Conservative ​digital competence ​of​ 2015 has become even stronger ​in the subsequent two-year hiatus.

But in the end nobody really knows who is using Facebook or what they are doing with it. ​I’d like to tell you that we will find out on Friday but, ​while we certainly will discover the election result, in all that darkness it’s going to be hard to know who did and did not use Facebook to their advantage.

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Comments
  • John Douglas 6 Jun 2017 at 5:54 am

    That post is as scary as anything George Orwell ever wrote, Mark. It feels like a hyper-targeted, mass-awareness, emotionally-relevant, populistic, pugilistic Nightmare on Downing Street buggeration. I don’t know whether to curl up in a ball and rock myself to sleep or take to the woods. Is this the revolution we must all join? Or is this the new empire? Again you scare me, Professor Mister Ritson. Well writ.

  • Zbiggy Ucinek 6 Jun 2017 at 8:16 am

    Mark, cool post. Begs an off the wall, but hopefully pertinent marketing question to you. Fully accept and understand the swing seat focus, but be interested re your opinion why that is the case. Are the other seats really unachievable re cost vs effect. Or is it due to a lack of a new kid on the block, so to speak, to shake things up. Makes me think of that old saying about the two shoe salesman landing on an island where everyone is bare foot, if you know it.

    • PJG 8 Jun 2017 at 2:40 pm

      Zbig – Interested to hear what Mark says about the constituencies like ours where there is no incentive for any party to canvass support, digital or otherwise. BTW Those in the know might be correct to criticize Mark but SO many people are not aware of the power of FB etc. This reinforced several articles I have read this year…….but I would be part of a small minority of people who have.

  • Pete Austin 6 Jun 2017 at 9:18 am

    Re: “Around 20% of the voting public will make up their mind in the three weeks prior to election day”. I’d already voted by then, because I use a postal vote. Don’t forget that postal voters decide earlier.

    Also many people spend most waking hours outside their parliamentary constituency, so geo-targeting is harder than it seems.

    • Mark Ritson 6 Jun 2017 at 10:46 am

      Good effort Pete but

      1) the US data on the 20% who decide in the last 20 days includes postal votes in the 80% and

      2) Facebook records where people live in exactly the same way the electoral roll does it, people can check their FB at work or overseas and they will still be targeted based on the constituency they live in

      • Ali 8 Jun 2017 at 1:42 pm

        Re 2 : even if they didn’t it would be pretty easy to work out – the % of log ins between say 7pm and 7am at one place over the course of a month, log ins on a certain device e.g. tablet that they could estimate with a high degree of certainty you leave at home

  • mw 7 Jun 2017 at 3:20 am

    …and it makes no mention of the potential for some cashed up oligarch, corrupt dictatorship, or vested foreign interest that might stand to benefit from the election of one party, taking sides and seeking to influence the outcome an election for whatever nefarious purposes they have in mind.

    The depth and hold of Facebook’s talons in the collective carcass of society’s conscience is wildly underestimated, misdiagnosed and in my view mistakenly seen as essentially benign. Facebook has literally drained the lifeblood of thousands of advertising bodies and has arisen in its vast monolithic corporate bloat seemingly without any of the external checks and balances that were a key feature of their predecessors. Concepts like journalistic integrity and excellence, editorial discretion, balancing stories against the facts, correcting factual errors, diversity of opinion – these concepts fall subservient, and in some instances, seem entirely at odds with Facebooks own goals and algorithm’s. Just really pause and consider what Facebook knows about you if you’ve been a user for any length of time which goes well beyond your professed likes, births, betrayals, deaths and marriages to things you potentially don’t know about yourself – for instance your attention span, reading speed, why certain images appeal to you and when they will appeal to you. It’s really a bottomless pit of information.

    Facebook needs to decide whether they really do want to bring the world closer together and put into place practices to do so, or whether they are content just to teach the world to sing whatever damn song at whatever damn volume that generates them profit.

  • Mark Ritson 7 Jun 2017 at 9:45 am

    Ha ha ha (evil laugh)

  • Tom 7 Jun 2017 at 11:41 am

    A fascinating, terrible article. Thanks.
    It seems obvious that ‘for the good of the country’, something needs to be done to try to better regulate social media political advertising . It’s so obscure and opaque that parties could – are? – win elections on entirely fraudulent and specious arguments. Well, even more than they did before. But it’s also obvious that no party winning using this technology is going to want to change the rules.

  • Paul Amery 7 Jun 2017 at 11:52 am

    Great, eye-opening post, thanks Mark

  • Alex 7 Jun 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Come on. This is ridiculous hyperbole. Yes in 2015 the Edmonds Elder operation did an impressive job, and no doubt they will repeat it this year. But the reason for a huge Tory majority is not Facebook – but the fundamentals of the election. Higher ratings on leadership, the economy (no party has won an election behind on these two issues) and 9% of the electorate (aka UKIP voters) up for grabs and splitting 10-1 for the Tories. Facebook is an impressive channel to reach these voters and the Tories are doing an effective job of trying to suppress and convert the Labour vote with negative digital campaigning… but this would not be effective if the party wasn’t already ahead on these fundamentals, and the Labour Party didn’t have a leadership (Abbott + Corbyn) so ripe for attack. Over the top rubbish.

    • Mark Ritson 7 Jun 2017 at 3:03 pm

      Ok Alex. You can’t agree with my whole article. Summarise it rather well. Then claim that it’s rubbish at the end. If you want to pick a fight, pick a fight. But where?

      • Alex 8 Jun 2017 at 12:44 pm

        Not meaning to pick a fight at all Mark. But I do think its incredibly important (for the reconciliation on the left after this election) to recognise that the reason the Tories will have a huge majority tomorrow is not because they were outspent, or out Facebooked by their opponent. That’s a very convenient excuse for many. But because the Tories had better candidates and were ahead on all the issues that matter to voters in swing constituencies etc etc etc.

        I’d rewrite your top para to say “My money is on the Conservatives to win this week’s general election, for the simple reason that they had the best candidates, were ahead on all the issues that mater, and their ability to prioritise the voters who matter most. Facebook will be one effective method for reaching some of those voters”. That’s why I said it was hyperbole.

        Needless to say Edmonds Elder also worked on the remain campaign last year, as you’ll know. For all the impressive Facebook targeting done then, its not just the method that wins the election. Just as it wasnt the famous ‘Labour isn’t Working’ poster that won it for Thatcher in 1979. It’s also important to note that the demographic that will turn this election are 55+ year old UKIP voters, who spend less time on Facebook than some others.

        Anyway. Let’s wait and see what happens tonight. I’m just anxious the left doesn’t look for excuses. Thanks for replying btw.

  • Barry Sharp 7 Jun 2017 at 5:00 pm

    lol @ Ritson trying to tell people about digital marketing.

    “Facebook and data are important!”
    “Did you know you can TARGET people now?!”

    Welcome to 2012, Mark.

    – slow clap –

  • Ian Cuthbert 8 Jun 2017 at 9:40 am

    The digital marketing strategy works because only the Tories have most of the mainstream media on their side. If they did not have solid and constant support from traditional news media organisations – online and in print – the impact of their Facebook spending would be greatly reduced.

  • Michael 8 Jun 2017 at 11:37 am

    If there was ever a ‘rush to digital’ and I were to plot it with a metaphor, this is the fastest 180′ handbreak turn, right in to a 0 – 180km/h acceleration we’ve ever seen. Someone’s read some Cambridge Analytica press. Welcome to the bandwagon professor. Have you broken the news to your accolytes. Are you running for Prime Minister?

    • Mark Ritson 8 Jun 2017 at 10:40 pm

      As I have repeatedly tried to explain, consistently, digital hasn’t it’s place. But it depends on the strategic situation and the the fit with Facebook or other, often superior alternatives. It depends.

      In this case the geolocation, microtargeteted, short term, zero sum, personality driven, multi message, high involvement, low repeat experience, lack of physical presence nature of the election makes FB a very very good fit.

      I still think digital media is overstated and over used by most marketers. I think “digital first” is about the dumbest thing I have ever seen in marketing. But In this particular case FB is amazingly useful.

      I can’t see how this is some kind of “hand brake turn” just the ultimate application of media neutral principles. In my consulting life I’ve been very comfortable working with several brands that are 70% to 90% focused on digital media. I was part of the decision making team that made that call. But only if we compare all options and only if the strategic fit sends you in this direction.

      I don’t why this is so hard.

  • Frank Fenten 8 Jun 2017 at 5:33 pm

    Interesting analysis and actually, exactly the playbook we’ve been following in my Calder Valley constituency. Incredibly tight geo, age and interest targeting. Following the last point in your piece, I’ll divulge NO details about how effective its been.

    But: there’s one thing your analysis misses.
    The Labour activist army.
    Been doing some analysis here:
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tale-two-channels-facebook-election-ge2017-frank-fenten?published=t

    Facebook is not a safe space for the Conservatives. Labour engagement has been running double, triple the Conservatives. No sooner does an ad go up than an entire division of activist troopers jump on it with the fastest rebuttals you have ever seen. Puts the 1997 spin machine to shame.

    So why aren’t Labour romping home?
    The over 55s don’t get their news from social media. They get their news from the papers and TV. Which is why the Conservatives have been buying newspaper wraps in local papers. The data shows a huge disconnect between the online and offline demos.

    • Ross Howard 9 Jun 2017 at 5:27 pm

      I came here looking for this, excellent point. The delivery of a print or tv ad doesn’t have a comments box. Social advertising is perilous as it is liable to hijacking by the other side in terms of response.

      There has been a very heavy ‘meme’ presence in 18-30 social channels within the last month of the election, not to mention a viral video turning into a top 10 hit on iTunes. I’d argue that if the Tories had Targeting on their side, Corbyn had content.

      Great post by the way Frank, good read.

  • Shaun 9 Jun 2017 at 8:54 am

    Looks like May’s not the only one to hang herself!

  • Barry Sharp 9 Jun 2017 at 10:36 am

    “As I have repeatedly tried to explain, consistently, digital hasn’t it’s place”

    Yes. Exactly.

    You’ve pissed on digital publicly for years, now are desperately trying to get behind the biggest growth area in global adspend with no clue as to what you’re really talking about.

    It’s a huge, public handbrake turn and you’re being called out on it.

    You’ve mistaken a loud opinion for a credible one and, rather than admit that you don’t actually understand what’s going on, you put out outdated articles like this and go picking fights with people who don’t agree with you… even though many of them are *actual* marketers with decades of real-world experience.

    The sooner MW ditches your blowhard bullshit, the better.

  • Arnie Saccnuson 9 Jun 2017 at 8:32 pm

    I cant remember where I picked up the link to this article but I booked marked it because as I tried to read it I thought what utter nonsense, it was totally counter to what I was seeing spanning both political spectrum’s of social media and the internet in general and what I was seeing was the Labour party totally owning it.
    I would love to know how much money the Conservatives tipped down the financial drain that is Facebook.
    Labour absolutely owned social media, it had better comment, better videos, better engagement because it was driven by REAL people not algorithms. Labour built from the ground up and the Conservatives delegated it to algorithms.
    Facebook targeting is not what it is hyped to be, it is why I get persuaded by adverts for items I have already purchased it is not point point it creates useless bubbles unless it is backed up by REAL PEOPLE engagement and enthusiasm . Where is all the hype from Cambridge Analytica in this election , it is nonsense and a case of the emperors new clothes. Digital can augment a solid real world campaign but it will never replace boots on the ground and a positive message.

  • dinger 10 Jun 2017 at 11:36 am

    now look what you’ve done – hung parliament, wtf…

  • Thomas 10 Jun 2017 at 11:56 pm

    “The Conservative election campaign … also failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.”

    from http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2017/06/nick-timothy-why-i-have-resigned-as-the-prime-ministers-adviser.html

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