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Don't Forget To Tell A Story: Political Marketing In The Digital Age

06/04/2017 11:28 BST | Updated 06/04/2017 11:28 BST
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Labour has set aside a £4 million war chest to fight a snap election amid belief a vote will be called before 2020, it can be revealed...Senior Labour sources said the cash would be used to fund a nationwide advertising blitz and a digital campaign to engage voters through Facebook and Twitter - Ben Riley-Smith in The Daily Telegraph

These days, politics is to a large extent played out in social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms can be full of passionate political support, anger at someone else's beliefs, virtue signaling and easy sharing.

For their part, politicians have come to recognise the power of digital support: the Conservatives spent £1 million more than Labour on Facebook during the 2015 General Election; and Vote Leave and Donald Trump prioritised digital marketing in their campaigns.

And now, it appears that the Labour Party is seeking to capitalise on social media political marketing as it gears up for the next General Election.

The often-repeated advantages of political social media campaigns can be relayed easily enough. Social media tend to be cheaper than traditional channels (e.g. TV); they can be used to encourage grassroots donations (through donate buttons and the like); campaign messages can be shared by supporters with their own friends and followers (creating earned, or 'free' conversation); social media managers can run real-time responses to something said by the other side (as Hilary Clinton did in 2016, rebutting Trump's 'facts' in speeches and debates); digital data can be analysed to target specific audiences (to attempt to convert interest into voting intent); and worse performing creative assets can be pulled, while better performing ones can be boosted by increased media spend.

All of this is true, and makes social media seem highly attractive. Social media can be faster, more accurate and cheaper, and at least three major campaigns (which we don't have to like to learn from) have used them to winning effect.

What's not to like?

However, the idea that social media political marketing will lead to inevitable success ignores a fundamental truth: the need to create memorable, persuasive messages in the first place.

Take Donald Trump. Whatever you think of him, he deployed a central, highly memorable message during his campaign: "Make America Great Again".

What was Clinton's core message? Can anyone recall?

Crucially, Trump's vision was spread on social media, but, I believe, could only gain traction there because it addressed and encouraged a feeling many of Trump's supporters, still to this day, defend and advocate.

And that feeling exists within, but also beyond social media.

One can question Trump's honesty and credibility, but one underestimates his power at one's peril.

To return to the Labour Party: can it claim to have tapped into a winning set of feelings and beliefs? Does it have electoral support beyond its undoubtedly passionate core? Does it have a vision that can be digitally delivered and shared, but also build and sustain 'offline' memorability and advocacy?

I would argue that answering those questions is an urgent, existential task for Labour. Social media's known advantages don't win elections by themselves.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, appear to have thought through their potential appeal already, based on the reality of Brexit. Theresa May has said she wants to get the best deal for the whole country, not just Brexiteers, and the Government has committed itself to the 'will of the people'. May's reputational image is that of 'the vicar's daughter': sensible, perhaps slightly dull, but serious-minded, earnest and above all competent.

Of course, there is much that can be, and often is argued with, and it remains to be seen whether any of the Conservatives' positioning will work on voting day. However, it is easy to see how they will be able to tell a story around their perceived virtues, digitally and otherwise.

What is Labour's core message? What is Corbyn's key reputational appeal? Can anyone tell?

All opinions are my own.