Over the course of the Scottish Independence Referendum and this year’s General Election, I’ve been exposed to a lot of political social media activity as I looked to offer a view on its use as a campaigning tool. The over-riding theme is that as a whole, it’s poorly executed. Quite often it’s the case that supporters of a certain party or movement make far better use of social media than the official organisations – this post disregards that as that is people acting under their own steam, and while that is great to see, the actual parties should be performing much better, with that mind, this article focusses on the official social media use.

Here are the key issues:

  • Lack of response to questions, comments etc  – you know, actually being social
  • An ignorance of best practice for content creation across the platforms
  • A dearth of creativity

Why is this the case?

Before I start sharing my thoughts with you, I’d like to add that what follows is derived from my views as an outsider. I don’t have access to the parties to find out what the problem is. Perhaps some of them will read this and reach out…

There are two key reasons why I think that UK political social media is struggling to make the grade.

1 – A lack of resource

Political campaigns are a massive drain on resources, cash-wise of course, but they also demand a lot of time from party representatives and members. I would wager that social media management is fairly far down the list of priorities when compared to door-knocking, press activity and all of the other activities we could class as ‘old school’. Why would that be? Well, that’s the way it has always been, and as a rule, all of that activity is effective. A ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach perhaps? One of the glaring issues with political social media is a distinct lack of consistency when it comes to quality of updates. This may well be down to the fact that the responsibility for the platforms is passed around a group of people, maybe even volunteers, who likely don’t have the right experience to make the most of the platforms, ensuring best-practice approach is in place.

The other side of this lack of resource shines through when I consider the horrible lack of responses to questions and comments from the parties within social. In my recent analysis of (some) of the GE2015 players, only the Lib Dems and Greens made any effort to respond and even that was at a minuscule level. In fairness to the parties, the response to updates is huge and often a strong proportion of the comments etc don’t warrant a response, however there are high levels of genuine questions, both from supporters but also those who may be considering a vote for a particular party. Leaving those people hanging really isn’t wise. It takes resource to answer people, however one of the key advantages of social media is that dialogue opportunity and it’s rarely seized upon.

Political tumbleweed

Political tumbleweed

2 – A lack of access to creative minds

It’s rare that a creative approach is abundantly apparent when it comes to political social media. This is surprising as it’s fair to say that we do see some nice creative via more traditional channels. Here’s a recent Facebook update from the Tories:

Screen-Shot-2015-03-08-at-14.57.18

A big nasty chunk of text that eventually leads people off to an article. Inspiring. Here’s an example of a more creative approach from Labour:

Screen-Shot-2015-03-10-at-08.45.13

Still not staggeringly creative, but some effort has been made at least. That said, across the board, there’s little evidence of creativity at play. Why is this? Well, I bet the parties with the budgets to allow it are channeling their funds into agencies that bring their outdoor, press etc advertising to life, leaving social media and the wider digital world at the bottom of the pile. It’s rare that even when there’s a nicely creative campaign offline that is transfers well to the pixelated world (in a political context). This shouldn’t be the case, integration has to be in place. This issue could well be influenced by the agencies themselves taking a ‘business as usual approach’.

Two reasons that I feel may well be key contributing factors. This leads me on nicely to the following question…

Does social media actually matter in politics?

That is a big question! There’s no doubt that social media is a valid way to reach voters and in particular the younger voting demographic, however there’s little data out there that truly defines its influence on voting decisions. That data would indeed be very hard to gather without a survey of a wide sample of voters. At one point in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, social media would have suggested a win for the Yes campaign in the region of a 70% vote. We know that didn’t happen.

That would suggest that social perhaps isn’t an accurate barometer of opinion. During that Indy Ref, I repeatedly took to Twitter to ask people if social media was playing a role in their decision making – the majority of responses stated that while it wasn’t a major factor, it did open them up to opinion and content that they would otherwise not have been exposed to. A discovery tool perhaps.

I asked the same question this morning:

Granted that isn’t a huge sample, but the responses are mainly negative. Thanks for taking the time to respond folks.

It’s well known that Obama’s social media campaign played a part in his win, but there’s little science to back that up. The over-riding feeling for me is that social media should play a major part in people’s decision making process, however, the way it’s handled by the parties (certainly within the UK), does little to offer value and a genuine resource for those that need input. Will it change? Well, many people are billing this General Election as the first true ‘social media election’. I don’t think we are there yet.

What do you think? Is social media playing a part in your decision making process? Are you influenced more by other forms of media?

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