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The Digital Election – How Digital Marketing Became a Political Game Changer

The Digital Election – How Digital Marketing Became a Political Game Changer

by George Toner | , The IDM |
In the early hours of November 9th 2016, Democrats across the US were left distraught and disconcerted as Donald Trump was declared President elect. At 10pm on the 9th June 2017, Conservative MP’s and voters across the UK were left scratching their heads as the exit polls were released. How could this happen? We were told the Conservatives were meant to wipe out Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and Donald Trump couldn’t possibly beat someone as experienced as Hilary Clinton, could he?

I must stress this is a non-partisan piece, there will be no political bias or endorsements. Instead, I want to explore a factor that might be at play and which may change the way political campaigns are fought in the future. With the rising growth of the digitally savvy, one could argue that digital marketing techniques played a pivotal role in the aforementioned campaigns, and that this helped shape the outcome that will dictate results in the future.

The birth of the digital election

After the hung parliament result in the 2010 general election, it was expected the 2015 general election would see the same fate with the Conservative and Labour parties polling neck and neck. Yet as the results started to trickle in, the Conservatives were on their way to a shock majority. Prior to the 2010 election, political parties were blind to digital; during the 2010 election, ‘digital’ was treated as a bit of a novelty. But 2015 was different; whilst Ed Miliband and the Labour party were spending money on an 8ft tall stone presenting their major pledges and a pink bus to address female voters around the country, the Conservatives were spending money with a far more modern approach. The Conservatives saw the potential of digital campaigning – through the likes of email, social media, online videos and interactive websites – and it helped lead them to victory. This election taught many lessons for the upcoming political campaigns, it proved that digital was serious business and, if utilised correctly, was a powerful and cost effective communications tool. So, with two big elections coming up within the next two years, who learnt from the success of the Tories and failure of Labour; who used digital to their advantage?

How Trump beat Clinton

During 2016 we were spoilt with political campaigns; we had the EU referendum in the summer and US Presidential election in the autumn. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton kept the world on its feet, it was played out like a nightly soap opera. Trump wasn’t thought to be a serious contender when the race to the presidential election kicked off but, as the months passed, he was gaining support where Clinton was losing it. Clinton still had a commanding lead as the big day approached, according to the polls. So, how did Trump beat the odds? Since the shock victory, news outlets, bloggers and political pundits have all had their say on his victory, but putting aside people’s personal emotions, Trump’s victory was driven by data and digital marketing.  

According to Google, Trump “won the election in search” and the man himself credits social media for helping him win - no surprise giving his social media engagement eclipsed Clinton.

A huge benefit of digital and data-driven marketing is that you can target specific audiences with a personal message to appeal to that demographic. Trump and his team used this to his advantage. The Digital Director of Trump’s campaign, Brad Parscale, explained they had never intended to win the popular vote since there was no economic or systematic reason to do so. Trump needed to win 270 electoral votes, so they targeted specific demographics in certain states. The strategy was less about being everything to all Americans and more about targeting specific clusters of people. This tactic led to the team targeting registered voters, who had a low propensity to vote, and to get them to vote for Trump. This focused approach helped with Trump’s Facebook strategy, targeting supporters through “dark” ads which are non-public and specifically targeted to narrow down on a specific audience. These dark ads were used to not only encourage potential Trump voters, but also discourage potential Clinton voters with negative posts on the former First Lady.

In one of his first post-victory interviews, Trump claimed social media “helped him win”. When it came to Election Day Trump had 14 million followers, compared to Hillary’s 11 million, allowing him to reach a larger audience. However, it’s not just about followers, it’s about the content you post.

Trump used his large following to his advantage and ensured conversation was about him at all times, a week didn’t go by where this man wasn’t trending on Twitter at some point. During the campaign he tweeted with admirable frequency, including live tweeting during rallies and events whilst also being incredibly aggressive and controversial. Clinton’s Tweets in comparison were too automated – they came from her team, which left her with no distinct persona and made her seem unattainable to the public. Trump, love him or loathe him, came across as straight talking whereas Clinton was too stage-managed.

It’s hard to think of a another President who has divided a nation quite like Trump but one thing we can agree on is that he got his campaign spot on, he and his campaign team used digital and data and came out victorious. Another way of looking at Trump’s digital success is through the amount of funding both candidates received. Clinton had $623 million of funding backing her campaign, whereas Trump had a mere $238 million. Clinton used a tried and tested old fashioned approach, whilst Trump broke new grounds by using free media to his advantage.

2017 UK General Election

Due to the success of the Conservative’s digital campaign in 2015, the party decided to use the same tactics and even brought in the same political strategist, Lynton Crosby, for their next battle. After Labour’s lack of digital expertise in the 2015 election, they decided it was time to join the digital revolution and their digital strategy proved to be a huge success.

The Conservatives used online ads and promoted posts heavily throughout this campaign. After the release of their manifesto, the Labour Party decided to attack one of the Conservative policies through their social media savviness, dubbing the policy the “dementia tax”. Whilst having very little to do with the policy, this term gathered momentum through social media and quickly became reported in the mainstream media. This quick thinking from the Labour Party saw Tory support drop in the polls, so they responded with Google AdWords. The party’s digital team used keywords, notably “dementia tax” to create an advert linking through to a landing page with the facts about the policy. How did Labour respond? Again, quickly! They ran their own Google AdWords campaign linking to their own landing page with their interpretation of the Tory manifesto. At the peak of the debate, both ads were running alongside each other with Google receiving 246,000 searches in the term “dementia tax” alone.

Social Media was a big hitter throughout this election, with all parties utilising various platforms to reach large audiences.  As of 2016, 84% of all UK adults use social media, with two-thirds of the same demographic using social media every day. Facebook is the most popular social media platform world-wide with roughly two billion users. The two main parties used this according to their own strengths; the Labour party was the most popular party on Facebook and used this channel the most. The party used Facebook to post positive messages to followers who engaged with them and, as such, the content spread organically. The Conservatives on the other hand, used targeted ads to help disseminate their election message.  On one occasion, a video disparaging the leader of the opposition reached eight million views, making it one of the most watched political campaigns ads in British history.

Whilst both parties used social media according to their strengths, it was Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party who used this form of marketing more efficiently, they spent less money and used the platforms effectively to engage with followers. The Labour Party managed to increase its following across the main channels by 61% throughout the campaign, whilst the Tories growth sat at a lacklustre 6%. The Tories ran an ineffective campaign and were unable to energise their traditional fan-base they also struggled to connect with swing voters. The Labour Party, while running a far less targeted campaign, focused on policy issues appealing to its key demographic – young voters. Young voters, the 18-29 category, have always had notoriously low turnouts, especially during the EU referendum. Just like the Labour Party, social media’s key age demographic is the younger generation. 36% of 18-29 year olds use Twitter, 59% use Instagram and a massive 88% use Facebook. Jeremy Corbyn used this to his advantage, he managed to resonate with this generation by making promises [to this demographic], which were heavily shared across social platforms. Arguably, this resulted in the Labour Party winning so many votes. This kind of positive social engagement wasn’t something the Conservative Party was able to achieve during this election campaign.

Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn may be, whether you agree or disagree with their ideologies, whether you think they’re smart or stupid and whether you love or loathe them, one thing we can agree on is that, from a digital marketing perspective, they played a brilliant, innovative campaign. They appealed to the right audience and defied expectations. If the last two years of political campaigning has taught us anything, it’s that digital is the future, and if political parties and businesses alike don’t move in line with the digital transformation, they risk being left behind.

The IDM offers various short courses specialising in all forms of digital marketing, as well as industry-leading qualifications. We offer awards and certificates focusing on different aspects of digital marketing including social media, email and search. Our brand new qualification, the IDM Award in Digital Marketing, provides you with a solid knowledge of the core principles that define the concepts and practical applications that are currently building careers in digital marketing.
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