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by GK Strategy 10th May, 2017
3 min read

Tone Deaf – Why Political Parties Need More Than Just a Good Digital Strategy

Social media is the sharpest weapon in a political party’s arsenal – but strategists are still getting to grips with how to hit the right tone on certain platforms. In 2008 Barack Obama showed the world that social media could galvanise an army of supporters into delivering a crushing victory at the ballot box. Since then, politicians around the world have used social media as a battering ram, smashing past the traditional media gatekeepers like interviewers and editors.

The aim is to dispense with the spin and the media noise. It’s not just communicating, it’s simulating a sit-down, one-on-one conversation with the voter.

In modern-day campaigns social media channels can’t be ignored. Traditionally the view was that social media was mainly useful for reaching those in the 18-24 age bracket. In reality, its key value lies in reaching those undecided swing voters, the infamous ‘shy Tories’ in 2015 being a case in point. Targeted, relatable digital advertising can be delivered by social media to hammer home key messages and convince the persuadable.

The Conservatives have led the way with this approach. In 2015 they spent an estimated £1.2 million on social media campaigns– compared to a paltry £160,000 spent by Labour. Working in conjunction with digital gurus Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, they carefully tailored their content to the channels and audiences – successfully transforming their audience into voters.

Similarly, during last year’s EU Referendum campaign, Vote Leave used innovative techniques which were ‘instrumental’ to getting leave voters to the polls. Eschewing traditional notions of advertising, the campaign poured millions into buying data and building digital models of the electorate. The result was a highly tailored and targeted campaign that was specifically timed to hit voters in the week leading up to the vote. They utilised a combination of inspirational language and an informative, chatty tone to achieve buy-in from their audience. Remain couldn’t match it.

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One of the key lessons from these campaigns is that tone on social media matters. One of the most noticeable criticisms of the 2015 election campaign was that each party failed to utilise tone in the same way that Obama did during his 2008 presidential campaign.

If you look at the Conservatives on Twitter, they focus on producing high quality content, often attacking the other two major parties. They use combative language and highly visual content to grab attention. However there is little variation, just alternations between attacking other parties and focusing on Theresa May. The Prime Minister’s account is little better – the content is highly repetitive and fails to express any personality.

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This time around Labour have said they are putting digital at the heart of their campaign. However, the fact that their joint national elections coordinator Andrew Gwynne went on record saying “This is probably the first election where social media will probably have a significant impact” perhaps suggests they haven’t fully absorbed the lessons of 2008 – let alone 2016. As this is a relatively new venture for them there is also a skills and data gap that will be near impossible to catch up in the short campaign.

On Twitter the party has focused on positive campaigning – their content is totally focused on Labour, its policies, and its leader. Similarly the tone is chattier, involving a call to action with an emphasis on spreading the word. This suggests they understand what their key demographic of younger voters expect.

 

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn’s Twitter feed is full of a varied range of content, including retweets of other politicians, Guardian articles and even posts by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. On this front Corbyn receives higher marks than May, mainly for being slightly less boring. He could maybe learn a thing or two from his predecessor Ed Miliband, who cultivated his own ‘Milifandom’and has recently developed an entertaining Twitter personality.

When it comes to tone on social media, the Liberal Democrats, especially their press office, have the reputation in the business.

Infamous for their sassy comebacks and for once even getting into a flame war with the Conservative press office over Brexit, they are more in tune with the nature and tone of social media than the other two major parties. The central party Twitter feed focuses on retweeting and interacting with actual users. Self-created digital content is rarer for the Lib Dems than other parties, probably due to budget restrictions. As a result, it lacks visual flair and an ability to catch the eye. Lib Dem leader Tim Farronfollows this template as well, retweeting news articles and letters.

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It’s clear that all of the three major parties are still working on getting the right balance of content and tone. The Liberal Democrats seem to be ahead in terms of actually coming across as approachable – a necessity for effectively simulating that all-important conversation with voters. However they’ve got a long way to go if they want to reach the same level as Innocent Drinks or the infamous Denny’s Diner on social media.

So why is tone so difficult to get right on social media? And what’s the best way to engage with your audience digitally? Get in touch with our experienced PR team to hear about what you can change tim@gkstrategy.com 

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