Are UK political campaigns harnessing the best digital and social campaign tools?


As all communication professionals know, targeting your audience accurately is central to the success of any good campaign. In 2000, voter databases used by political parties - such as Experian’s MOSAIC - allowed them to pinpoint demographics by postcode. In 2005, this was narrowed to households and by 2010 it could highlight voting patterns for individuals within the household itself. This evolution allowed unprecedented fine tuning of core campaign messages, which is credited with helping the Conservatives achieve a 97 seat swing in 2015. 

Consumer brands and political campaigns alike have adopted social media tools as a means of spreading core messages - increasingly via mobile - as consumption habits have changed. Ahead of tomorrow’s vote, we compare the strengths of the Leave and Remain campaigns in ‘owned’ and ‘paid’ channels; in particular their ability to generate conversation in ‘earned’ social media.

Lessons have been learnt from the 2014 Scottish Referendum and 2015 General Election, and purpose built teams have been acquired by both the “In” and “Out” campaigns to energise, inform, and influence key demographics. But who dominated in terms of reach and exposure?which campaign presented the most compelling narrative and content? Was positive or negative messaging more successful?  And how has social media conversation over the last few months helped shape the debate across the UK?  


Why social media is increasingly important in any communications campaign

A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that over half of news consumers now use social media to stay up-to-date each day. Traditional media outlets load slowly, consume large amounts of mobile data, and often lead with less eye-catching headlines. Facebook and Twitter can supply news based on the consumers likes, follows and location, they can also use this data to offer incredibly targeted information to advertisers. So how have “In” and “Out” harnessed the potential of social media and what can we learn from the campaigns?

We have crunched some numbers and looked at the breadth of organisations within the “In” and “Out” campaigns, not just Britain StrongerIn, and Vote Leave. We’ve assessed the likes, shares, views and comments to see how effectively they are using their ‘owned’ channels, as well as how well they are generating ‘earned’ media conversations. 


How do the campaigns compare?

Looking first at the simplistic measure of reach of their ‘owned’ channels (Facebook and Twitter), “Out” appear to have the upper hand. Looking at the cumulative total for the “In” and “Out” camps (see list below), Leave's 2,193,052 narrowly beats Remain's 1,941,178.

Table 1: Campaign followings in Facebook and Twitter.

We have left out the Conservative Party main Facebook & Twitter pages as they have split on the issue of Brexit and have individual campaigns running - listed in table one.


Who's content is more engaging?

Videos played a huge part in the referendum debate online, with both campaigns having produced more than one a day, every day, over the last three months. “Out” seem to have benefitted from initially having two competing, but well-funded, campaign groups (Vote Leave and Leave.EU) produced twice as many videos as “In”. Our analysis shows that despite bigger reach across some of their channels (Twitter), the “In” campaign are losing to the “Out” campaign when it comes to generating engagement - which is in many ways a more important metric of success. 

Collectively, the “In” campaign has published 150+ videos compared to the “Out” campaigns 320+. Looking at all the videos viewed more than one million times (as of yesterday), the “In” campaign are ahead with seventeen in total, compared to “Out” with fourteen. This indicates they might be doing better at developing messages their audience consider worth sharing. However, “Out” produced the most watched video of the campaign so far, with 8.4 million views in total, but, in terms of reach, views can give an overly simplistic understanding especially with auto play figures.

Britain Stonger In Europe's best video: What would Brexit mean for you and your family? with 5.3 million views, 5,696 shares and 18,000 comments.

“Out” are also ahead when it comes to engagement, ratcheting up four times as many video shares on Facebook: 887,844 compared to 197,692 shares for In.

Both campaigns here have proved how short, effective animation and use of subtitles (given that auto-play is on mute) helps push up views, catching the eye and simplifying the process of tuning in by default.

Vote Leave's best video: "Brexit the animated movie" with 8,7million views, 276,360 shares and 62,000 comments. Created by Piffle.


The lesson to be learnt here is that consumers time is precious, as is ours as communication professionals. Stopping to engage and read a campaign issue for longer than 2 minutes is a push. Videos and photos should distil their core message in the time it takes to swipe down a screen – no small feat but essential for 21st century marketing. 



A picture tells a thousand words

Picture posts have also played a huge part in both campaigns but again, “Out” have uploaded over four times as many as “In” (1,591 against 371 in the main campaign Facebook pages). Looking at the best performing picture posts by interaction, we can see that “Out” are also ahead when it comes to the more crucial engagement measures. "Out" had 85 images have been shared more than 5,000 times, compared to just 5 with that level of interaction from “In”. 

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
    Britain Stronger in Europe's top image "Jonny Vegas nails it" with 1,800 comments, 21,195 shares and 42,000+ likes. 

Britain Stronger in Europe's top image "Jonny Vegas nails it" with 1,800 comments, 21,195 shares and 42,000+ likes. 

Vote Leave's best performing image "I pledge" with 1,200+ comments, 64,820 shares and 22,000+ likes.

Vote Leave's best performing image "I pledge" with 1,200+ comments, 64,820 shares and 22,000+ likes.

We are often asked whether having a celebrity ambassador will really make an impact. Both campaigns utilised this tried and tested marketing tool with appearances for “Out” from: Ian Botham, Roger Daltrey, and Bryan Adams. Whereas “In” was endorsed by: David BeckhamJeremy Clarkson, and Eddie Izzard. The strong level of interaction with these posts shows us that, despite eye rolling from political insiders, these interventions helped spread campaign messages immensely and still have the power to cut through into mainstream media.

Table 2: Top five facebook images from in and out campaigns ranked by number of shares. 

Table 2: Top five facebook images from in and out campaigns ranked by number of shares. 


Atlas Partners produced this visual of the most used words on twitter #EUref using the free tool Word Clouds.

The campaigns underline the importance of setting clear objectives for each channel and understanding their strengths. The Remain campaigners believe twitter, although unlikely to directly sway voters, is a good method to influence the Westminster - and media - debate.

Britain Stronger In Europe spokesperson James McGrory told the FT (£) “Twitter definitely matters. It is hugely important in the air war and in the Westminster village.”

By contrast a source close to the Leave campaign told the paper “Twitter doesn’t count,” which is interesting when you look at their dominance in terms of reach, volume and retweets.

According to this excellent analysis from the University of Surrey, the Leave side is not only tweeting more frequently, but its tweets are falling on a receptive audience. The researchers consider that the dominance of Leave is a reflection of the much longer establishment of eurosceptics online, plus the more visceral nature of their campaigning. They cite the dominance of Leave.EU, which even without securing the official designation, has maintained a clear lead over any other group, with 1.5 times as many Twitter followers as all the Remain groups in their sample.

University of Surrey have produced weekly blogs looking at the #EUref debate on twitter and their latest even assesses the impact of the tragic killing of Jo Cox MP on the tone of the online debate. Their findings on positive and negative framing are particularly interesting. They found that negative tweets did not out-perform positive ones, based on an engagement measure.

While leave campaigners are more vocal on Twitter, the University of Surrey research suggests this will not necessarily translate to a result, as they are talking to each other rather than cutting through into mainstream chatter. While Twitter follower growth has strengthened in recent weeks, it has not approached the rates seen around the time of Cameron’s European Council deal. The researchers suggest that the majority of those who are deeply engaged with the issue have been so for a long time and but it remains a marginal issue for the large majority of users


Will Leave be app’y with the result tomorrow?


With the youth vote key to both campaigns, “Out” (Vote Leave) went where “In” refused to go and developed an app available to download - a UK political first. Free, quick to download, and with the ability to win prizes, this pushed messaging to voters and was able to highlight when key rallies, events, talks, debates or important speeches were being made across the country. The key thing to remember here though is data. This app allowed “Out” to track and utilise voter data to help define and work out which key messaging worked best with a small devoted audience before unleashing it on a national scale. On Google Play Store, downloads fall within the 50 000 bracket. In comparison to Netflix UK which falls into the 5-10 million bracket and the National Trust, 500 000 bracket.  


Social media advertising


Paid advertising on social media is much more important for both campaigns than traditional media, especially print. Neither side has revealed how much it is spending on social media, and they face no requirement under campaign rules to do so, which makes it hard from an external perspective to assess their success.

However, we do know that both sides are investing significantly in social media advertising with promoted content. They are taking advantage of the ability to target adverts based on the wealth of personal data stored by digital platforms. In an interview with Buzzfeed in December 2015, Arron Banks revealed that the “Out” campaign has already spent upwards of £200,000 on Facebook adverts, indicating that that figure was “probably on the low side” of the actual total. So we'd expect this figure to be much higher now.

The Remain campaign has employed the same team who ran the Conservative party’s online operations in the 2015 General Election, when the party spent £1.2m on Facebook ads - more than it spent on posters. “Facebook is a huge part of our operation with extraordinary reach,” James McGrory, the chief campaign spokesperson for Britain Stronger In Europe told the FT recently (see link above).


Notable mentions

Outside the core campaign groups, we offer you a selection of the best of the rest in case you feel you are going to miss the daily hyperbole.

The saviour of the Scottish Referendum tried to repeat the act, Gordon Brown’s timely video captured imaginations with a positive message for remaining in Europe, opposing the negative campaigning which has afflicted both campaigns. It led the news cycle that day and has been viewed 2.4 million times, and shared by 31,000 users.

The campaign trail sunk to a new level of farce on Wednesday 15 June. As parliamentarians engaged in the weekly PMQs battle in the Commons, UKIP leader Nigel Farage and pop star campaigner Bob Geldof were locked in a Battle of the Thames.


Explaining Brexit to an American audience on his show Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver enlists a barbershop quartet and compares Boris Johnson to BamBam from the Flintstones. It has generated 5.8 million views and 8,500 shares since it was posted on 19 June.

And lastly, but quite possibly our favourite of the whole campaign we bring you: #CatsAgainstBrexit

Since it began trending on June 20, it has reached over 3.5m devices and recorded over 4.5m impressions leading to key twitter influencers joining in such as: Daniel Hannan MEP, The Daily Politics Show, and most traditional news outlets. It highlighted the importance of humour in generating shared content in social media communications, as well as cementing our belief that cats do, in fact, rule the internet! 


What can we learn from the campaigns?

The campaigns remind us that it is important for any communications strategy to set clear objectives for each social media channel and know what they are best used for. Facebook is great for advertising and engagement, setting out core facts, figures and messaging which can be read and utilised in the 10 seconds it takes to scroll down your news feed. By contrast Twitter is best as an instant response mechanism – helping direct media coverage and instant reactive messages (rebuttal) through to core supporters. 

Speed of response, and pre-planning around events (such as a Referendum debates), has been key for both campaigns. “Out” pre-scheduled content and rebuttals based on what they suspected the “In” campaign would argue at any one point. They clipped their opponents mistakes and any aggressive audience questions in TV debates, which ensured the content lived on after the event, maintaining poll position in most timelines.

But how strong are the campaigns when compared to the marketing of corporate or consumer brands? Both in and out campaigns  together have just over 270 000 twitter followers., in comparison to Adidas with 2.75m; Coke Cola with 3.26m, and McDonalds with 3.24m. In the words of one communications executive working with global brands – the Referendum campaign numbers are “pretty pathetic”. So can they actually be said to have reached a broad enough audience?


What can social media tell us about tomorrow’s result?

So what does our analysis say about tomorrow’s EU Referendum? “Out” has more interaction online but could they be talking to themselves? “Out” voters have everything to gain from being vocal and nothing to lose whereas “In”, as ABC1s, have been recorded to be more reserved on Social Media channels. C2DE groups are more likely to vote leave and more likely to share social content.


Data from both Facebook and twitter tells us not so much voting intent, but how well each side is market themselves on social media. The big question is whether a tweet or a Facebook share is an accurate indication of your likelihood to go out and vote. Individual voters are more likely to be honest with their friends and followers on social media than they will be talking to an anonymous pollster, but a quick like, heart, cry or share is much easier that trudging out to the polling station in the middle of a thunderstorm (as currently predicted for SE England tomorrow afternoon!) This can only be answered following June 23.