Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: The Conservative Digital Dominance

When it comes to campaigns, money talks – if it is utilised effectively. Despite fairly comparable levels of spending by each party, it’s clear that the Conservative Party have learned how to use their money effectively to reach their target voters digitally – leaving Labour to struggle behind.

According to the Electoral Commission, there has been a steep drop in spending on traditional advertising by political parties, from £15.8m in 2005 to £6.9m in 2015. Expect this decline to continue in 2017, with traditional staples such campaign adverts and party political broadcasts having a smaller role. Instead smart money is being directed to digital advertising, big data and targeted campaigns. M&C Saatchi, the Conservative Party’s traditional advertising agency, led the way with this approach in the 2015 election.

The Electoral Commission is still playing catch-up. Spending on digital campaigns (including social media) do not have a category of their own yet, with a large degree of ambiguity still surrounding what should be reported by political parties. This is surprising – after all social media has become one of the most easily accessible, cost-effective, fast and far-reaching campaign tools in a party’s armoury. Already we are seeing content being developed specifically in order for it to be sliced up and repackaged across different online channels.

Social media will undoubtedly play a big part in the campaigns for this general election, as the Conservatives demonstrated during their hugely effective social media campaign in 2015. But this is more advanced than sending out the occasional tweet; during that campaign, the party’s digital team created bespoke content for different types of voters in different geographic locations.

This time around, with the same digital team rehired, they will look to cement their dominance in their field by building on the digital legacy of 2015.

To highlight the disparity between the two parties, the Conservatives spent £1.21m on social media campaigning in 2015, dwarfing the £160,000 spent by Labour. That spending didn’t just give them the edge in 2015, but built databases and infrastructure that will be fired up again for the coming election. Given the short campaign, there is simply no opportunity for Labour to bridge the gap.

There is also a clear upwards trend across each election since 2001 for increasing proportions of campaign funding going on market research and canvassing. Targeted data was used by successful Leave campaigners during the EU Referendum, some of whom were Conservative politicians. The two main parties will utilise these tactics ahead of June 8th, with the Conservatives capitalising on them most effectively.

Meanwhile, Labour may be trapped in a time warp.

Keen to disassociate themselves with Labour HQ, it is likely that Labour MPs in many constituencies will be aiming to run hyper-local campaigns. We have already seen Greater Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham’s manifesto very deliberately abstain from any mention of leader Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party itself (bar a legally mandated footnote). Local campaigns will rely on local fundraising efforts, which will have a significant impact on the campaigning methods being deployed. Candidates will likely have to rely on old-fashioned tactics such as activists knocking on doors one by one and handing out mass-produced leaflets with generic messaging, as opposed to producing high quality targeted content driven by data insights.

As an example, the Conservatives used their edge in data to deploy expensive but highly tailored letter campaigns to woo voters in key seats, which has been credited to helping with in their victory in Southampton Itchen, a traditionally Labour seat they won in 2015.

This disparity in approach is reflected in the party leadership. An analogue politician in a digital age, Jeremy Corbyn’s political style and history as a grassroots campaigner and veteran protester make it likely that he will insist on holding lots of face-to-face rallies to inspire the party faithful. This approach will probably deliver little real value to the campaign – particularly as it will only engage those already engaged with the party’s message and not reach out to core swing voters. Large rallies, while a boost to the ego, rarely have any significant impact except in generating some earned media. Expect the Conservatives to limit the number of party rallies, playing to Theresa May’s more low-key style.

The short length of the campaigning period means that Labour will struggle to learn lessons and challenge the Conservative’s digital dominance. In order to compete, Labour will have to commit substantial funding and change their campaigning mentality to deliver a truly effective digital campaign, both in terms of online channels and also data collection.

Even with a leadership committed to transforming the digital capabilities of the party, the short campaign would have caught Labour off guard.

The question is, if the polls are to be believed, will another defeat at the ballot box teach them anything?

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