Richard Morgan is a former research assistant for David Evennett MP and also a former Councillor of Bexley Council.
The Conservative Party’s use of social media during the June election was disastrous. Reports suggest that over £1 million was spent on Facebook advertising alone, mostly on generic party political adverts shouting “strong and stable” or personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.
This indicates that Central Office understand the potential and importance of social media, but they don’t appreciate how to use it – or more importantly, how social media is used by its millions of addicts.
According to data from ‘We Are Social’, Labour saw a 61 per cent increase in the numbers of their “followers” on social media during the six weeks of the election campaign, compared with just a six per cent rise for the Tories. The Conservatives also seemed to concentrate all their efforts on winning new and swing voters, rather than using the platform to re-engage with core supporters in its core areas.
In an age where we are fighting an opposition party with over 500,000 members and seemingly thousands more foot soldiers, clever and efficient use of social media is more important than ever.
The potential of social media for political parties is vast. You can target people of any age, in any location, and with any interest, and speak directly to them. This means a single person (who knows what they are doing) can potentially engage with hundreds of thousands of people a day, talking to them about issues that matter to them on a local level.
This means social media can fill in the gaps where we don’t have members and ground troops to do the job.
Take Gloucestershire for example. The county concentrated all their efforts on keeping Alex Chalk the elected MP for Cheltenham, against a strong Liberal fightback in the town. Resources were diverted away from other seats in the county to reinforce the Cheltenham team.
Happily, they succeeded – the Party on the ground has not forgotten how to run a good local campaign. But so tight was their focus that nearby Stroud was neglected, and Neil Carmichael lost by a paltry 687 votes. A more effective social media strategy would only have needed to engage 350-odd voters (just 0.55 per cent of the turnout) to see him over the line.
Since the election, the party has recognised it’s lagging behind in the digital world. Admitting you have a problem is obviously the first step towards dealing with it, but the next step is vitally important. A bad social media strategy is quite capable of doing more harm than good.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. If the Conservatives are sending out outdated and irrelevant messages on digital platforms, they risk further turning off the tech-fluent younger voters they are trying to reach. Greg Knight’s infamous campaign video is a fine example of how the instinct to engage with voters in new ways can backfire.
Relevance must be at the core of everything we do: before sending out any new piece of content the Party must ask: “How is this relevant to the people we’re paying to send it to?” Generic messaging only reinforces the idea that the Conservatives are out of touch and have too little to say to voters about their individual concerns and experiences.
For this reason, the party needs to completely re-develop its social media strategy – and the first big lesson learned must be that trying to squeeze out local messaging with a uniform national campaign is a very, very bad idea.
Half of all social media and digital marketing should take place on a local level, and control should be passed back to the individual associations. Local posts should be going out to local people, using local photos and addressing local issues. It’s a lot more relevant for students in a marginal seat to see their local candidate, standing in front of their university building, talking about funding at that specific university, than a generic party political advert about Jeremy Corbyn’s links to Hamas and Hezbollah.
In an age where election results and swings are fragmented and vary so much in different parts of the country, it’s crucial to localise some of our social media efforts. Instead of spending tens of thousands of pounds on nationwide adverts which will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, we should be spending a few pounds on specific adverts that will only be seen by hundreds of people who really care about the content.
This will take work: equipping your grassroots to engage effectively with social media is a lot harder than overseeing a very centralised operation. CCHQ either need to train local associations to do this themselves or, preferably, give each association a single point of contact where they can send photos and stories, which are then distributed at a local level by a social media expert.
Of course, there is still a need for nationwide, ‘air war’ digital campaigning. But the same basic questions apply: whenever we send anything out we must ask how it relates to the interests and concerns of the electorate. We need less generic negative advertising, and more positive, specific, and relevant messages in their place.
We also need to review what happens if and when social media users click on our messages: all too often, the user is not re-directed anywhere. If a University student is to click on a Conservative party post, message, or advert about tuition fees, they should be directed to a specific page on our website about tuition fees, not the homepage or a generic page about the manifesto.
Relevancy is king online, and every single policy in the manifesto should have its own dedicated multi-media online page, talking about nothing else but that policy. It’s at this point we can get really smart. Once you have specific target voters, interested in a specific subject, visiting a specific page, you can track and monitor how they react to the messages on that page.
One way you can gauge reaction is to set up split testing. This is the process where you have two different pages with two different messages under the same URL. Half of visitors are sent to the first page, which details a positive policy, the other half are sent to another which hosts a negative attack.
You can then monitor which page gets more interaction and response from visitors, helping determine what type of policy and messaging the electorate responds best to.
The Conservatives have a lot of catching up to do if they’re to match Corbyn and Momentum at the next election. But they must take care to build up their digital campaign machine properly, or it will backfire on them.