Politicians are a tainted brand, and with trust in their messages severely lacking there’s little chance of them emulating Barack Obama’s social media successes, suggesting election marketing will revert to traditional channels and negative campaigning.
More than half the UK’s voters believe the information they will get between now and the General Election will be too biased and contradictory to work out what is true and what is false.
With around a third likely to make up their minds about which candidate to vote for during the course of campaign, there is ample opportunity for communications to sway them, but the political parties’ ability to take advantage looks to be severely limited by lack of trust.
The findings come from research carried out exclusively for Marketing Week by research firm Simpson Carpenter. Two thirds of Britons surveyed say they trust news and politics television programmes to provide them with information on the parties and their policies, compared with just 7% who say the same of political advertising.
So with voters resounding in their distrust of politicians, what will be the key political marketing battlegrounds? And has British politics learned yet from President Obama’s US election campaigns how to use digital and social media to generate support?
“People haven’t trusted politicians for 60 years. The reality is we’re just not relevant any more,” is the damning verdict of Stella Creasy, Labour MP for the constituency of Walthamstow in north-east London, speaking at a recent Ad Week session on youth engagement.
Creasy is an enthusiastic user of Twitter, where she can be found posting pictures of kittens or referencing the latest death on Games of Thrones as well as publicising serious causes such as gambling regulation. She also communicates regularly with local groups on Facebook.
Creasy believes social media can be a key way of utilising the opinions of constituents and projecting honesty to voters. She is most concerned that the main parties are still failing to engage with the next generation of voters.
The social media election
Only 44% of 16- to 24-year-olds voted in 2010 compared to 76% of over-65s who turned out [Ipsos MORI], and Creasy fears the gap could get wider.
“That trend will get worse this election as unfortunately young people, although politically engaged, just don’t connect with the actual process and we are missing out on their voices.”
It is clear that among younger people digital and social media are an important source of information, with 20% of 18-34s in the Simpson Carpenter study placing trust in specialist political websites, 16% in articles and other links on social media, and 15% in online video channels, compared with lower figures for older age groups. Interestingly, young voters are also more likely than their elders to believe they will be able to get the right information to help them vote, and less likely to believe it will be biased and contradictory overall.
But even among young voters trust in social media is low compared with the 54% of 18-34s who trust TV news. Whether the parties are effectively communicating with them through social media channels is also in doubt. There is a growing distrust in what politicians say, according to Tom Simpson, founder of Simpson Carpenter.
“Since 2010, the majority of voters have become unreceptive to most forms of political marketing as they simply do not trust the voice of politicians any more,” says Simpson. “We’re more interested in what the commentators have to say, [because] following so many scandals the politicians fundamentally are a damaged brand.”
One in five respondents to the survey reveal that they do not trust any political party, a figure that rises to one in four among the under-35s. For the three biggest parties in Parliament – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – nearly 50% of voters believe they will say anything to get elected, with one in five Labour and Conservative voters even cynical and distrusting of what their own parties will say for electoral gain.
Twitter and Facebook believe things are changing, with both convinced 2015 will become the first ‘conversational’ election.
One in three (34%) Britons aged between 18 and 34 have changed their vote from one party to another based on something they’ve seen on Twitter, according to a study it recently conducted among 3,000 of its users.
On Facebook, meanwhile, in the the 10-week period ending 10 March there were over 21 million interactions (posts, comments and ‘likes’) across the UK linked to the General Election. This works out as an average of over 304,000 election-related Facebook interactions every single day.
“The outcome of this election isn’t clear and as it will be tight like the Scottish Referendum, Twitter will be a key battleground,” insists Joanna Geary, head of Twitter’s UK government partnerships team.
Geary says that 78% of MPs are now signed up to Twitter, but naming Boris Johnson, Creasy and Nick Clegg, she only believes the ones who authentically connect with their electorate and show personality will translate tweets into votes.
“The effect on Twitter users when contacted by a politician suggests it is more powerful than recommendations from friends or families in deciding a vote,” she claims. “We know it is impossible for a politician to reach out to an entire constituency on the ground, making a platform like Twitter absolutely essential.”
With the Conservative Party currently spending in excess of £100,000 a month on its Facebook output and Prime Minister David Cameron leading page likes with nearly 500,000, Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s government and politics specialist for Europe, Middle East and Africa, believes the strategy could pay off.
“People don’t trust campaigns or the media, but they trust their friends,” she insists, with the Scottish Referendum the most discussed Facebook topic in the UK last year.
The anti-social election
Yet Simpson Carpenter’s statistics contradict Linder’s claim, with traditional media of all kinds more trusted among all age groups than any social or digital media. There remains a big gap between the UK and US adoption of these: the 2012 Obama re-election campaign saw the US President spend $47m on social media, compared with $4.7m spent by his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.
In India too, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 was credited in large part to his ability to appeal to the masses online.
Linder argues: “A successful 21st-century campaign will see politicians building trust with people who will in turn advise and inspire their friends on who they are voting for. I think when you have a place like Facebook, where more than 50% of the UK population is connected, you’d be foolish to ignore it.”
However this looks to be some way off still in the UK. With Labour battling the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and the Tories aiming to fend off Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, YouGov co-founder Stephan Shakespeare believes things will be a lot more traditional.
Speaking to Marketing Week at this year’s Advertising Week Europe, he noted: “I don’t think social will have an impact. That time will come but it isn’t sophisticated enough at the moment and parties are just using social as a cheap way to deliver leaflets.”
His assessment is echoed by the chief executive of a major political ad agency, who doesn’t want to be named: “I think it will be like trench warfare in the tight constituencies and you’ll still see each party fighting it out through the conventional ways – so door-stepping, leafleting and local media appearances.”
The executive adds that political marketing today can be more risky than beneficial, thanks to social media: “From a marketing perspective, one consequence is everyone is trying hard not to make mistakes as it is now amplified by social. Whether that’s eating a bacon sandwich or using a pink bus, political marketers have more fear, as getting it wrong with a campaign could shift momentum in the other direction.”
Despite leadership only accounting for 9% of voters’ reasons for voting, in comparison to 44% who decide on a party’s values and 21% on policies according to YouGov, Cranfield University professor of political marketing Paul Baines expects the next few weeks to be the dirtiest in recent memory, with each party aiming to vilify their opposite leaders.
“This will be negative and more vicious than 2010 as it is a lot closer,” says Baines. “In the US campaigning is vitriolic and they smear each other. We’re moving closer to that. You’re going to see the Conservatives go hard on Ed Miliband with real personal attacks and Labour probably doing the same.”
Laurence Janta-Lipinski, associate director of political and social research at YouGov, believes the politicians will start to make a big push on YouTube in the weeks before the vote.
“We have stricter rules than the US but I’d expect a continuation of attack-minded stuff to go on through YouTube, where there is less regulation, as they all want something that will go viral.”
However, he adds: “The party that knocks on most doors and talks to most people in the marginal constituencies will win there; the party who spends most on social media in a tight region will probably still lose.”
The anonymous ad agency boss insists there is still a demand for cross-party barbs, although admitting that it is a shame.
“If you think of Labour pictures of William Hague with Margaret Thatcher’s hair or the Tories recently showing Miliband as [SNP former leader] Alex Salmond’s puppet, there’s massive evidence that voters are still enjoying these types of ads. What is a shame is that it appears a lot of the policies this time around could play second fiddle to very personal attacks.”
It’s hard to predict what will happen come 7 May, but the 2015 General Election will be remembered as a transitional one, according to Cranfield University’s Baines. “The parties still care more about over-60s as they will go out and vote where as the under-24s are flaky and unreliable on voting day,” he says.
“But they are getting there with social and digital, and I think there’s a sense that in five years time these younger voters will be key, so politicians have to build bridges now.”
Not everyone has time to attend a local surgery so politicians can speak to their constituents much more easily [on Facebook]. We have seen a rise in long-form content too, with David Cameron posting lengthy opinions on policy.
I think making content that appeals to smartphone users is key. Labour showed a six-second video of a graph populating to show NHS waiting times, which did really well on our platform. Nick Clegg has also been great at communicating with other pages, whether that’s mental health charities or others.
For so long politicians were in awe of the technology and that hindered their ability to speak to the people. Voters want a regular, honest voice and MPs can do that on Facebook to great success.
Seventy-eight percent of members of parliament are now on Twitter. We have more than 15 million active UK users and we see this as more of a Twitter election than 2010. We saw it for the Scottish referendum – there were 7 million tweets on its hashtag and we expect more this time around.
If you look at the Indian elections [in 2014], there were nearly no active Indian politicians on the platform but Narenda Modi figured out how to engage with voters on Twitter and it helped him get elected.
Authenticity matters and you must connect consistently with your constituency. If you read Boris Johnson’s tweets, he has a distinct voice and does regular Q&As.
[Labour’s] Stella Creasy MP also has bags of personality. People will figure you out if [your content] isn’t coming from an authentic place.