Social Media and the Presidential Elections: Lessons for the UK

2012 has been the year that social media changed the way elections are run.

Don’t agree? You would have valid reason not to. After all, it was at the last Presidential election in 2008 in which Obama used Twitter to announce the selection of his running mate, current vice-president Joe Biden. Similarly, online platforms had a big part to play in Obama raising $750 billion for his campaign in 2008.

However, when you consider that in 2008 Facebook had a ‘mere’ 100 million users and Twitter only 1 million users, we can appreciate the drastic difference in penetration that social media has four years later, especially when considering that 50% of Americans in 2012 are using social networking sites (as compared with 22% in 2008). US politicians have also sat up and noticed this development with 90% of senators now owning a Twitter account.

The internet, and more specifically online access, was the communications game changer in 2008 and the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that the 2008 election was the first time that “more than half the voting-age population used the internet to connect to the political process during an election cycle.”  Fast forward just four short years, and the political campaigns of both the Republicans and Democrats still use websites, telephone canvassing, post mail outs, radio and a TV presence through advertising and taking part in debates.

The difference is that now political campaigns shape their tactics by using data gathered from social media. Digital advertising spend, which has doubled since the 2010 midterm elections, can be highly targeted with rich data on age, location, interests as well as provide campaign managers with vital intelligence on the most connected online influencers on various social platforms.

Furthermore, once campaigns have begun, social media can be used as a tool to assess the effectiveness of specific messaging to varying audiences and can be easily modified mid-campaign. With so many key battleground states up for grabs at this year’s election, data gathered online about specific voters is pure gold for those knocking door-to-door to canvass support – and may be the difference between whether it goes Blue or Red.

Another example of the influence of digital during these elections is the extent to which it is being used as the stage for a national conversation on the hot topics shaping the campaign. For example, voters during the presidential debate used Twitter to voice their opinion with a staggering total of 10.3m tweets during the first presidential debate and 105,767 tweets per minute for Obama’s “horses and bayonets” comment during the third and final debate.

Rather than just being another channel of information, voters nowadays demand interaction with their politicians. MDG Advertising found that 62% of voters are expecting candidates to have a social media presence in 2012.

Lessons for the UK

Looking to the UK, over the next three years, we will see a number of significant elections including the first-ever vote for police and crime commissioners across 41 police force areas in England and Wales on November 15th, local elections on May 2013 and another general election by May 2015, if not before. So, are the UK’s political parties fully utilising digital communications to the extent they are being used by their American counterparts?

In a word, no.

Far from embracing social media, the UK’s main political parties have, to a large extent, experimented with online campaigns, but not always yielding favourable outcomes. In the 2010 general election, both the Labour party’s use of popular fictional TV character Gene Hunt and the Conservative party’s poster campaign backfired, and more recently the Liberal Democrats apology video from its leader Nick Clegg quickly turned viral for all the wrong reasons.

While the Tories have invested heavily in SEO, political parties in the UK have only really used social media to ‘normalise’ the idea of voting for them, especially amongst a younger demographic. Parties are missing a huge opportunity by not taking advantage of Google searches.Key search terms such as for the NHS, immigration and foreign policy often fail to bring up a mention of any of the three main political parties. The US has also done a better job at using social media to mobilise voters from all areas of society whereas in the UK, political dialogue taking place on social media tends to be enjoyed mostly by the political classes.

The political parties in the UK need to drive real conversations with voters and not just push out content used for the offline world. The tone of dialogue on social platforms needs to be authentic, something that Obama has received plaudits for in the past, and not just used as a one-way platform on which to update about activities and news. Currently, smaller political parties which focus on fewer issues have made the most advances in creating a dialogue with the Green party and UKIP often receiving the highest engagement scores amongst the parties.

Lastly, the explosion of smartphone usage over the last few years has created a huge opportunity to interact with voters. However, UK political parties are very much playing catch-up here too. During the recent London Mayor elections in May neither the Labour nor the Liberal Democrats had a mobile website and the Conservative party website was clunky and difficult to read. Similarly, in order to maximise voters’ and volunteers’ limited time, it is crucial that the technology created by political parties is as easy as possible to use. The success of, for example, the Obama for America mobile app– which maps out registered Democrats near your address, when and where the nearest Obama-related events will take place, and lets users sign up to donate or volunteer for the campaign – should serve as a beacon of the direction that the UK parties should heading towards.

If the UK’s politicians want to take advantage of the same opportunities as their American counterparts, then social media should be approached as a strategic and constant communications tool rather than dipping in and out of it tactically. Digital needs to be integrated into all other communication channels seamlessly and tailored content should be created for the different audiences on various platforms.