16/05/2016 12:52 BST | Updated 17/05/2017 06:12 BST

Front and Centre, But Will It Work? Social Media in the EU Referendum Campaigns

"What is clear is that traditional not the main focus for both [EU referendum] campaigns' marketing push." This was the fascinating finding in a recent article in Financial Times, reporting on the avid use of social media by Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave.

Print ads, posters and TV spots have taken a back seat to social campaigns for both sides. As we approach the UK's historic choice on 23 June, the political marketing to influence voters, attract donations and mobilise activists is increasingly digital.

The time is now

It's worth pausing to reflect how far social has come in politics. It wasn't long ago it was often held up to ridicule: remember that picture of David Cameron in a telephone conversation with Barack Obama?

Speaking to Robert Cookson, the FT's Digital Media Correspondent, I was struck by his view on the respect social now enjoys in politics. "I think people have come to a nuanced view. Yes of course social is still relatively fresh...but if you look back to the 2015 General Election, I think there's an understanding it can really make a difference."

It's clear that to the professional campaigners, nothing succeeds like success. If the Tories used social in a differentiated way during the 2015 General Election campaign (devoting most of their digital budget to Facebook activity), social should be front and centre the next time there's a major campaign.

That time is now.

Fans & followers

A quick look at both campaigns' total number of social fans and followers paints an immediate picture. At the time of writing (early May), Britain Stronger in Europe had 382k Facebook fans; 26k Twitter followers; and 1.5k Instagram followers. Vote Leave had 341k Facebook fans; 39k Twitter followers; and 3.3k Instagram followers.

In other words, Britain Stronger in Europe had the edge (409k total fans/followers, vs Leave's 383k total fans/followers.)

Job done?

Big beasts

However, a different picture emerges when we dig into the campaigns' social interactions. On Facebook, it's instantly clear what The Economist's Bagehot alluded to: "the idea that people who are anti-EU are really driven. This is the referendum they have been waiting for for years."

In the last month, Vote Leave's Facebook page gained 1.2m interactions; vs a mere 474k for Britain Stronger in Europe. Boris Johnson drove this in particular, with two videos among the most popular posts: "Boris is right" and "Boris reacts to Govt EU leaflet". This focus on personalities (big and small) is reflected in particular in Vote Leave's Instagram feed, which combines BoJo shots with pictures of grassroots campaigners out banging the drum.

Another so-called Tory 'big beast', Justice Secretary Michael Gove, drove most interactions for a single Vote Leave Facebook post in the last six months (70k; almost a third of which were shares). In this statement, he memorably called the EU "an analogue union in a digital age."

Realists vs. idealists

Britain Stronger in Europe could be accused of lacking star power: its leaders Lord Rose (who described himself an Eurosceptic who nonetheless wants to make it work in a recent Treasury hearing; one wonders how many UK voters see themselves in just this way) and Will Straw are engaged, but comparatively little known.

Instead, its top performing Facebook post by interaction aggressively calls out the Vote Leave campaign. "The Leave campaign were asked to name just one independent study that shows we would be better off if we left Europe. Here's what happened" gained 28k interactions, more than half of which were shares. This is the most common type of Britain Stronger in Europe post across its social channels (interestingly, it doesn't seem to believe in Instagram, where it has fewer than 40 posts.)

To speculate, Britain Stronger in Europe seems to take pride in the relatively lesser lights of its leading spokespeople: it believes it has facts on its side. There's no sign that it thinks its lower interaction matters as much as its greater support.

But will it work?

What does all this amount to? As we saw in the Scottish independence vote, fervent SNP social media use failed to translate into victory. It's not too much of a caricature to say that for one British social media advocate, there are scores of quiet characters who will speak decisively on voting day only.

We'll have to see if social's role in the EU referendum campaigns is merely noteworthy, or a decisive game-changer.