Political marketing failing to engage young Britons

With less than two months until the General Election, a huge majority of young Britons still feel disengaged from politics and neglected by the parties’ communications. According to new research from youth marketing agency Voxburner, UK politicians have failed to learn the marketing lessons of Barack Obama’s election victories in the US.

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The survey of over a thousand 16- to 24-year-olds finds that 86% disagree with the statement ‘Politicians understand my world’, despite 68% of this age group agreeing that politicians’ decisions have a direct influence on their day-to-day lives. Voxburner founder Simon Eder believes that British politicians have failed to heed the lessons from Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, when a range of tactics were used to mobilise young voters on a mass scale.

These included using social media to spark debate, organise grassroots activists and encourage small donations to the campaign. In 2012 Obama raised around half of his $1bn campaign fund from small donations, with email and text also used as direct marketing tools.

“We’re not seeing that kind of ‘Facebook election’ here in the UK,” says Eder. “By getting people to contribute dollars, Obama empowered them to feel part of the campaign, but here the money in politics still comes from a handful of people.”

British politicians have stepped up their efforts to engage with young people in recent weeks. Last month, Facebook and Sky News hosted a live Q&A event in which young people were invited to put questions to Conservative leader David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The programme was streamed on Facebook and YouTube, as well as on the Sky News TV channel.

Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s politics and government specialist for the EMEA region, reports that there has been a significant upturn in election-related discussion on the social network since the turn of the year. “Last year, political issues were the most discussed topics on Facebook in the UK,” she says.

“Whether it was the Scottish Referendum, the European Parliamentary Elections or the Rochester and Strood by-election, millions of people from all walks of life turned to Facebook to share their views.”

However, Voxburner’s Eder warns that UK politicians have a tendency to appear patronising when seeking to engage with young people. Labour’s recent embarrassment over its ‘pink bus’ initiative, aimed at reaching female voters, highlights the danger of using stereotypes and gimmicks to reach certain demographics. According to the research, young people regard honesty and integrity to be significantly more important than the presentational qualities of politicians.

The survey findings also suggest that young people in the UK are most concerned with economic issues in the lead-up to the election, with 57% stating that they consider unemployment to be of high importance. The same proportion describe tuition fee policy as a priority, while 51% cite wage levels. By contrast only 8% regard reforming the benefits system as important and only 4% care about the debate around EU membership, despite both issues being prominently debated by the main political parties.

Eder believes that today’s young people are pragmatic and practical, with many of their political views informed by their experience of the recession. According to the survey, 16- to 24-year-olds are particularly worried about their financial situation, with 75% citing this as a concern. This comes ahead of buying a house (52%) or finding a partner (42%).

“This isn’t a generation high on drugs, like some previous generations,” asserts Eder. “It’s a generation high on caffeine. They want to stay late, work hard and achieve things for themselves.”

The channels through which young people consume political messages are also changing. Seventy-one per cent state that online video is a preferred channel for consuming content, compared to just 39% who cite written news articles. Last month the Conservative Party began running pre-roll adverts on YouTube in order to take advantage of this trend, though some commentators have criticised the party for making aggressive negative attacks against Labour in a similar fashion to US political ads.

Young people’s use of traditional news brands is also falling, with 18% stating they regularly read The Guardian and 23% using the Daily Mail, versus 38% for BuzzFeed, 77% for YouTube and 86% for Facebook. “Young people today probably get their news more from Facebook than from dedicated news sites,” says Eder.

“Yet I still don’t think politicians are taking advantage of the huge potential of social media.”