What Role Will Digital Play In The Next UK Election?


This post is the second in a two-part series with our partner Weber Shandwick exploring how digital and social media are provoking a profound shift in political engagement between voters, politicians and governments.
Andy Thomas

Kate Joynes-Burgess finds UK political parties fighting to dominate our digital ‘airspace’ but they’ll need to crack mobile, email and social engagement if they’re to mobilise the masses.

Digital campaigning is on the rise in UK politics with all parties – whether mainstream or marginal – taking to digital and social channels to grow their share of voice and supporter base. But creative approaches to digital engagement that talk to hearts and minds, spark a conversation and spur social sharing are still in the minority. London Mayor, Boris Johnson, an early adopter of Twitter to crowdsource public opinion via his #AskBoris Q&As – batting off derision with characteristic aplomb – will be one to watch when he seeks to return to parliament in 2015. While the LibDems dominated Twitter in 2010 arguably Labour’s digital efforts are now showing most promise. The party’s ‘What number baby born on the NHS are you?’ campaign ticked all the boxes. Its highly shareable and personalised creative reinforced an emotional connection with the cradle-to-grave public service while reasserting Labour’s role as its brainchild and guardian. Even the mobile user experience was more streamlined than most, an increasingly crucial conduit for reaching the electorate in the next parliamentary vote.

Making mobile connections

Mobiles are an accessory that’s increasingly with us and almost always on our minds in the UK where at least 35 million of us own smartphone. One in six UK adults look at their mobile more than 50 times a day, according to Deloitte’s Mobile Consumer 2014 report, with over 30% of UK adults checking their smartphone within five minutes of waking up. Getting mobile engagement right represents an unbeatable opportunity to get closer to people’s lives in the run up to the 2015 vote.

Far too often digital content and campaigns translate into a clunky experience on mobile with tiny text and too many layers in the user journey. Parties and politicians need to think more Amazon ‘One Click’ or Ebay ‘Buy it now’ than cumbersome registration forms. Whoever masters mobile engagement will gain a significant competitive advantage in 2015.

Evolution of email

In parallel, UK parties are returning to a veteran form of digital communication. Email engagement proved a vital element in Barack Obama’s winning presidential votes (2008 and 2012) for data gathering, message testing and as a private space to directly connect with voters on an ongoing basis. Conversational, personal and attention-grabbing subject lines, reminiscent of Upworthy headlines, now permeate email campaigns by UK political parties. MP Sajid Javid’s email to Conservative supporters – “You won’t believe what Labour did this summer” – lampooning Labour’s spending plans epitomised this approach.

What’s motivating email campaigns? The promise of data, ongoing engagement and lucrative results witnessed in the Obama campaign where the best performing email (“I will be outspent” – the result of obsessively testing 17 other variants) raised an astonishing $ 2.6 million. If Obama’s strategists had gone with the least engaging version instead of that money-spinning missive they would have secured $ 2.2 million less for campaign coffers – funds that British parties can only dream of.

Spurring a social democracy

Email is the original ‘dark social channel’ – that is, a private online space – which campaigners are seeking to socialise through in-message calls to action. The recent embedding of contextual Google+ posts for Gmail users has encouraged UK political parties to start engaging more with the search giant’s social platform. Meanwhile, private mobile messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are a hive of social sharing, especially among younger audiences, leaving businesses and political parties drooling to get their hands on that data. Get your digital campaign right (or horribly wrong) and it could take on a life of its own across the dark social web before bubbling up on Twitter, Facebook and other public platforms.

Starting a social media campaign is an exercise in relinquishing control. Misread the public mood – or the politics of a platform such as Twitter – and political parties could unleash a slew of trolls and merciless memes. A cursory glance at satirical responses to #whyivotedukip or the Twitter storm around Better Together’s latest ad aiming to inspire Scottish women to vote ‘No’ (#PatronisingBTlady) is enough to bring any politician out in a cold sweat.

Digital driving Scotland’s independence debate

While campaign teams haven’t always got it right, there’s no doubt digital has played an incredible role in the Scottish #indyref. Digital channels have not only served as a portal of information but also as an area for both sides to sign up activists, for activists to get material and updates, and for fundraising. It’s also played a powerful part in helping to inform and galvanise the sections of the communities that no longer rely on traditional media for their input.

On top of this, as we’ve seen the rise of the individual and social media, we’ve seen a generation that no longer doffs its cap as much to celebrities, business owners and other high-profile people who, in the past, would have expected more reverence for their opinions and their influence swaying.

And digital’s role is far from over. Regardless of how the vote goes, it will be an amazing avenue to help shape the Scotland that rises from the ballot boxes of September 18. To find out more about the implications of the Scottish vote you can join Weber Shandwick’s hosted conference call taking place on Friday 19 September (11am-12pm) where our experts will help you get to grips with the immediate implications of the vote. Register here to get your dial-in details and briefing paper and join the discussion via Twitter by tweeting #CallWS.

Kate Joynes-Burgess is Head of Digital UK & EMEA for Weber Shandwick’s Corporate, Financial and Public Affairs practice.

Weber Shandwick will host Social Media Week’s flagship digital politics session (11.30am on Thursday 25 September) exploring ‘Why Social Will Decide the Next Election’ when the conference returns to London this month. Find out more here and join the debate by tweeting #SMWdigitalpolitics.

This post is the second in a two-part series with our partner Weber Shandwick, exploring how digital and social media are provoking a profound shift in political engagement between voters, politicians and governments. To read the first post in the series, click here.

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