Leon Emirali is a media entrepreneur and co-founder of Crest, a digital PR agency. He is a Conservative candidate at next year’s elections in London.
I have 70,000 followers on Instagram. The official account of the Conservatives has 13,000 followers, and the Prime Minister has 24,000.
I’m pretty boring. A 20-something entrepreneur with a penchant for a city break and Tottenham Hotspur football club. So why are nearly three times as many people choosing to keep up with my holiday selfies and food photos, compared to the musings of the leader of a global superpower?
The answer lies in the detail of the party’s digital strategy. Plenty of criticism has been directed at the Conservative Party’s handling of social and digital media following last June’s general election, all of which has been wholly justified. The much-maligned party conference snaps on Instagram were indicative of the problem at the heart of the party’s digital operation. Simply ‘being on social media’ is not enough. It is the quality of content that is the overwhelming variable that determines success.
When it comes to innovation, it’s often said that the public sector is half a decade behind the private sector. That lag at least doubles for political parties. Whilst there can be no doubt that Labour/Momentum’s digital activity out-performs the Conservatives’, there is a risk of viewing what is essentially a mediocre social media operation as a blueprint for success. I’ve lost count of how many times the suggestion of creating a ‘Tory Momentum’ has been mentioned. Instead of looking to the Left for inspiration, the party should be looking to the world of start-ups and the private sector for ways to transform online communication.
A good place to start is studying the meteoric rise of the ‘social media influencer’. For those unaware, these are individuals who have amassed sizeable digital audiences and, as their name would suggest, hold plenty of influence over their follower-base. This influence is valuable. Last year, brands spent $570 million paying influencers to promote and endorse their products. Kim Kardashian is reported to have charged advertisers $500,000 for just a single Instagram post to her more than 100 million followers.
As public figures, MPs and politicians are ideally placed to become influencers in their own right, creating a powerful electoral tool in the process. Whilst Jacob Rees-Mogg tried his very best to become an Instagram star, his follower count has stagnated. It could also be argued that most of the 40,000 or so who do follow him do so with a sense of irony, rather than investing any emotional capital in his political ideology.
A better example of a politician who has leveraged social media effectively is Shéridan Oliveira. A junior legislator in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. She has amassed a six-figure following and caught the attention of her electorate with candid snapshots of her life; both professional and personal. Scrolling through her social media feeds, you get the sense that this is someone who ‘gets’ social media and enjoys participating in it. A far cry from most British MPs of all political colours.
Interestingly, Oliveira has a background in psychology and perhaps she has used her understanding of the human mind to become one of the slickest social media operators in global politics. She has grasped that the key to success on social media is offering something of value to the audience. In this case, the value she provides is a glimpse into the life of someone who is young, successful and doing things that most would aspire to. She provides followers with a sense that if they make the right life choices, they too could live the charmed life she appears to enjoy so much. Contrast this with a photo of a pot-bellied Damian Green reviewing a few sheets of A4 amidst a tepid beige backdrop and we can begin to understand what the Conservatives have been getting wrong.
Encouragingly, the Conservatives have recently upped their game in the digital stakes. They did a solid job of communicating the Budget via social media with a 25-second summary video and engaging infographics. Similarly, their strong rebuttal of the ‘fake news’ that was circulated regarding animal sentience gained plaudits. But unlike the relatively static spheres of television, print and radio, social media moves at break-neck speeds.
Just as politicians begin waking up to the mere existence of a new platform (Instagram, Snapchat etc.), users are already moving on to the next big thing. It’s hard to predict what this might be; the smart money is that it’ll centre on virtual reality, augmented reality or voice. Whatever it is, if the party is serious about safeguarding its long-term electoral chances and appealing to younger audiences, they must dedicate appropriate resource and attention to keeping up with digital trends. The future depends on it.