February 22, 2015

Do We Really Want Our Politicians On Social Media?

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This was first posted on thedebrief.co.uk

Russell Brand has more followers on Twitter than the whole House of Commons put together (OK, I haven’t done the math, but it’s a fair assumption with his 9.11 million followers). But is this real political influence? Probably not. After all, Russell Brand has said time again when asked by angry QTers why he won’t stand for parliament: ‘I’m a comedian, mate.’

So how important is social media in getting people to vote? And do we even want our politicans on Twitter?

As a marketing tool, social media stopped being a nice-to-have long ago. And now it’s becoming a crucial strand in the bigger marketing campaigns. Even the household of HRH The Prince of Wales has put out an ad on a recruitment site this year, asking for applications for the newly created role of ‘digital engagement officer’.

Traditional organisations have realised that they need to get over the fear and become more discoverable online.

But what about politicians? According to The Sunday Times, almost 80% of MPs now have a Twitter account, but their individual Twitter strategies are very different indeed.

They send out more than 13,000 tweets over ten days and the public fire back 385,000 tweets in response. We also now know that the Tories’ spend a whopping £100,000 a month on Facebook ads, according to the BBC.

Vikki Chowney, a digital marketer from H&K Strategies explains: ‘They don’t seem to be spending the majority of their money on newsfeed ads – they’re paying mainly for Page Likes (hello 2008!),’ she says.

‘Speaking as a social media editor, this is hardly a Facebook “strategy” – splurging money on essentially buying “fan”.’ Fans who won’t necessarily convert into IRL voters, anyway.

If you need further proof of this, the Lib Dems emerged as by far the most popular party of the week on Twitter, according to TheSunday Times. Of tweets that offered an opinion about any Lib Dem MP, 60% were cheers, only 40% boos.

The @LibDems Twitter is simple, linking to news stories with a clear-cut message and a strong focus on helping working women and making small positive changes. They also send out constant reminders on why you should vote overall, and less self-promotion than on other feeds. But IRL? In January, the Lib Dems had their lowest ever rating in a poll since they formed the coalition in 2010.

However, where the Lib Dems might be leading the three main parties in terms of social engagement on Twitter, it’s worth noting that their Facebook page (106k followers) has one sixth of the presence that Britain First has (650k followers) and only a fraction of the engagement.

Britain First’s page is more of a public ranting forum instigated by shocking images or videos rather than well thought-out constructive criticism or celebration of political views and opinion. For example, controversial headlines such as ‘VIDEO: 30 Britain First Vs 3,000 Muslims!’ which received over 3k comments, 20k shares and over 900k video views.

This far right party has worked out how to tap into Facebook user’s feeds – by talking about broad values that will appeal to a mass of people — without coaching them in political policy. And at face value, it seems to work, though it’s hard to imagine any of those hundreds of shouty comments translating to votes.

Actually, of all the main parties, it’s the Conservatives that have almost got Facebook right – by uploading their ‘Best Facebook Moments’ publicly to YouTube, including the infamous George Osborne’s #burgergate. The video received 650,000 views, and people seemed to enjoy the fact that they were gently mocking both themselves and their competitors.

Why? Because this is a language the millennial voter already understands, and a space they’re already comfortable in. Boris Johnson often gets mocked during his #AskBoris Twitter Q&A, with most questions along the lines of, ‘Would you rather have large hotdogs for legs, or mini hotdogs for fingers?’ but he owns it, and gets his hashtag trending everytime.

But while Boris can get away with a bit of personal self-deprecation, David Cameron’s tweets get an instant response every time – insults include calling him ‘dishface’ or ‘farmer dishface’ in repsonse to a video clip of him visiting the set of Emmerdale. This shows that politicans have to be as mindful of their personal image as we are with our Instagram accounts.

Part of Raheem Kassam’s expertise as senior advisor to Nigel Farage is to test and learn what images of Nigel Farage prove most successful online. A photo of the UKIP leader with pint in hand staring to camera seems to be less successful than a picture of him in a flat cap by a river, looking in the direction of the Facebook ‘like’ button.

This is strange, as it would *seem* to be more authentic if Farage was in the pub, but either way it proves that these politicians aren’t being authentic at all, because they are too busy testing different locations. In a nutshell, it proves that Farage is preoccupied with online image as the other party leaders.

You can’t talk about the way British politicians are running their social media accounts without looking to the success Obama had galvanising social media in the last US presidential election.

The president has nearly 55 million followers on Twitter, while the remixing of his voice to the soundtrack of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off abound. He even conducted interviews with YouTube celebrities, including Bethany Mota, the US version of Zoella, with 8 million followers. Can you imagine David Cameron doing the same?

Obama’s ‘four more years’ resulted in the most RT’d tweet ever, with almost 510,000 RTs. (Back in 2008, when Obama won the election, he had more ‘friends’ on Facebook and Myspace and more followers on Twitter than his opponent John McCain.)

Michelle Obama is just as social media savvy, having shown her fun, warm personality in what The Guardian called ‘the latest great political Vine’. This vine is simple but effective (42 million loops) – Michelle Obama says ‘turnip for what?’ while holding a turnip and nodding her head along to DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What. It was posted as part of a Q&A organised to promote her ‘Let’s Move’ healthy lifestyle campaign.

She does the ‘cool mum’ thing, and people love it. She also retains trust by letting her social media team run her feeds, but signing off ‘MO’ if she’s actually typing a tweet with her own thumbs.

Social media is the number one place millennials get their information and they are more likely to tweet a complaint than call up or send an email. A study by Fishburn found that ‘65% said they believed social media was a better way to communicate with companies than call centres.’

The social networks themselves know they can help in facilitating the growth in youth voters. The installation of the ‘I am a Voter’ button in September 2014 had a big effect. Researcher James Fowler told TechCrunch: ‘Facebook caused an extra third of a million people to vote.’

The conversation around politics on Facebook is constant, especially as was seen in the Scottish referendum debate, with ‘over 10 million posts, comments and likes relating to the debate’, according to Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s politics and government specialist. That’s a LOT of people who can be reached.

Social media is still a huge grey area for politicians who are hiring social media and communication gurus at a rate of knots (and the Tories even hired Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina back in 2013).

But rather than using social media as a crude popularity contest and trying to ramp up as many likes as possible, why aren’t they using it as a massive, dynamic, ever-evolving focus group, making sure they are listening to feedback and engaging in an authentic manner?

Politicians simply aren’t reaching millenials and we aren’t reaching them – as young people and students making up the ‘missing million voters’). However, we’re here on Facebook, on Twitter, waiting to be engaged with.

The fact of the matter is, like any good digital native, we can spot a fake personal brand a mile off. So a word for all politicians dipping their toe in social media: try and be yourself, don’t post stuff for the sake of it, own it when you fuck up and just do the very best you can at your job offline and online. And then maybe we’ll listen.

  • Social media and politics is such an interesting subject. There’s a general feeling that politicians are incredibly difficult to identify with, but with social media so prevalent now, certainly many of them could change this perception and appeal to the masses.

    Lizzy from Nomad Notebook

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