23 May 2015

The ruthless reality of the Election 2015 digital campaign

As the Conservatives and SNP prepare for battle in a radically altered political landscape, we reveal the relentless precision of the social media campaigns that became vital to their success.

While 2010 was heralded as the first “social media election,” the political parties were concentrating on “funny videos” rather than seeing networks as a serious place to spread their messages.

But strip away the public modesty and highly choreographed photo shoots, and you discover a ruthless approach to social media campaigning that is light years away from the “funny videos” mentality of the 2010 election.

The digital campaign directors for the Conservatives and Scottish National Party have revealed to Channel 4 News their relentless focus on Facebook to target the voters who they thought would define the result.

But for each of them, the currency of fear – the supposed need to avoid a dreaded alternative – was also a significant feature of the election’s digital tapestry, as both parties discovered the benefits of running highly disciplined marketing efforts more akin to corporate branding than any previous British election.

When the Tory campaign swung into action in mid-2013, it quickly settled on Facebook as its social medium of choice.

In 2010, Facebook was seen by the party as an “interesting way to reach young people”, but a few years later was recognised as a “behemoth” that could reach over half the population and people of all ages, according to Craig Elder, the Conservative party’s digital director.

“We knew from our experience at the last election what a massive driver of activity it could be,” he told Channel 4 News.

Conservative party election adviser Lynton Crosby (left) and strategy adviser Jim Messina watch the results come in – @Messina2012

Facebook has moved beyond its previous concentration at universities in urban centres and into rural areas. It has also shifted beyond young users; “they’re continuing to grow because it’s our mums and dads and grans and granddads that are getting on there now”, Elder said.

Labour made great show of having talked to millions of people on the doorstep, but the Conservatives’ chief data strategist, Jim Messina, was much more concerned with talking to “the right people” time and time again – trying to persuade a more targeted portion of swing voters in the tightest seats to vote for them.

This approach would prove critical as the election came to focus on a few thousand voters who seemed likely to define the fortunes of a handful of marginal seats across the country.

Now there’s a completely analytical approach to it Conservative party creative director

Before polling, the likely target audience was refined to just 100,000 people in the most decisive contituencies – while one analysis after the event highlighted the tiny majorities in seats that helped the Tories gain a majority: a total of just 900 voters in seven constituencies.

“We were always unequivocal in saying the first and foremost purpose of what we do is reaching out to floating voters,” Mr Elder said.

The new outsiders

In the face of such close contests, both the SNP and Conservatives had chosen to employ social media teams with plenty of experience outside politics.

Mr Elder rejoined the Tories in July 2013, having worked on the 2010 election before moving into the private sector for three years.

The SNP’s new media strategist, Kirk Torrance, runs a consultancy that helped with the party’s 2011 Holyrood campaign and its run at the independence referendum.

He boasts a joint Scottish and South African heritage – continuing the trend of British parties bringing in external election specialists from abroad, alongside Labour’s campaign chief David Axelrod, his Conservative counterpart Lynton Crosby and Tory data specialist Mr Messina.

For Mr Torrance, a big part of the job was to reinforce the impression of a growing swell of SNP support across seats in Scotland, “this idea of SNP everywhere”.

His team was focused intently on gathering and re-sharing “all the activity, all the photographs – any kind of proof, social proof that the momentum was with the SNP”, he told Channel 4 News.

He also recounts the long journey to influence of Twitter and Facebook since 2008, when people were “quite apprehensive about it, especially the politicians”.

Targeting the few

Tom Edmonds, the Conservatives’ creative director for the 2015 campaign, agrees that the difference between social media use in the last two elections is “night and day”.

In 2010, he said the digital team was focused on “fun stuff” such as memes and amusing videos – “but did it really convince voters? I’m not really sure”.

“We didn’t actually stop, we didn’t really measure the stats we just did things that we thought would be interesting and exciting at the time,” he told Channel 4 News. “Now there’s a completely analytical approach to it.”

The Conservatives overhauled their 2010 website – “a sprawling, unfocused mass of information”, as Mr Elder calls it – into a tool that would drill down to individual constituencies, explaining what the coalition had achieved in local areas.

And the party was just as determined to exploit Facebook to reach “regular people” as any corporation or branding team, Mr Elder said.

“Political parties, like any other brands, have the opportunity to say ‘actually, these are the sort of people that we need to reach out to, these are the sort of messages they need to receive’ – and then you can pay for advertising to get those right messages to the right people at the right time,” he added.

“We knew that we could be very targeted and reach out to the people in the places that were going to decide this election.”

By comparison, Twitter was seen by both parties as a way to motivate dedicated supporters and campaigners on the ground, although they recognised that its reach among the gneral population is comparatively small.

Positive or negative? Or both?

Both parties are happy to extoll the positive messages pumped out to the electorate – the SNP battling for an “end to austerity”, the Tories repeating its “long term economic plan” mantra for weeks before the campaign and throughout.

But in reality the campaign was also defined by strong negative messages, as the SNP appealed to voters to “keep Cameron out of Downing Street” and the Conservatives relentlessly played on a vision of a Labour minorty government in thrall to potential SNP coalition partners.

Elections are about big numbers, and they are proudly recounted by the election’s relative victors – from the Conservatives exploiting their email list of 1.4m declared supporters, to the SNP who saw their membership rocket from 25,000 to 110,000 members in the last month of the campaign.

Although not reflected in numbers of seats, the Greens’ surge in membership has been widely attributed to social media.

But in the end, politics boils down one person standing in a polling booth with a pencil in their hand, hovering over a ballot paper.

The same is true for social media, whose word can spread far and wide, but whose impact lies in reaching an individual, and just maybe changing their mind.

But was it social media that won the day? Mr Edmonds recognises it had an impact online and offline.

“If it comes down to 50 seats, it can be one volunteer just knocking on the door that makes the difference.”