This post is by Philip Iorio, media planner at ZenithOptimedia.
Electioneering is a fascinating case study of marketing in action – an intense blast of advertising and PR that highlights both the strengths and limitations of the communications industry.
Deep pockets are no guarantee for success
Considered to have the most draconian political advertising rules in the free world, political adverts are – and have always been – banned on British TV and radio. This ensures the political views broadcast into homes are not determined by those with the deepest pockets. To give you an idea of how deep pockets can be, the battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2008 saw almost $1bn spent on presidential campaign ads. In 2010 in contrast, UK parties reportedly spent £31m.
Even without the big budgets, the question at the beginning of the UK election cycle was one of cost, with reports that the Tories were set to outspend Labour by three to one. The media was quick to portray a David vs Goliath narrative reminiscent of the same old marketing campaign question of 'quantity vs quality'. Yet it also allowed marketers to hope for more nuanced and experimental work to emerge from this year's campaigns, consigning to history the traditional ads that framed the elections between the 70s and 90s.
Circumventing the advertising ban on TV, Labour portrayed Nick Clegg as a subservient puppet of the coalition government, while the Liberal Democrats hit back immediately with an ad portraying Ed Miliband as silent on the threat from Ukip. In the past, such quick retorts would have been hampered by long lead-times; but now thanks to technology, those windows have narrowed from days into minutes. This is just a small part of the onslaught of digital media, which has changed the scope and consumption of advertising.
Not all votes are equal
Currently, political parties still have to rely on mass media outlets in order to disseminate their campaign messages, which inevitably leads to distortion. The emergence of digital media has been an important step towards enabling politicians to communicate directly with the electorate.
Many credit Obama's successful campaign in 2008 for changing the way we think about political advertising and its capabilities. It involved the use of digital technology to engage the young and disenfranchised, while at the same time fending off Republican attacks and raising millions in donations. Four years later the Obama administration sharpened its credentials further, using big data and algorithms to re-engage supporters.
This big data campaigning involves the collection of data to give politicians a more detailed picture of voters. What had once been done with pen is now being done in real-time and at a staggering pace thanks to innovative data technologies. Data is gathered and compiled to create a complex profile of localities, and individual voters. Different sources such as private polling, membership logs and door-to-door canvassing are logged and fed back to party HQ. This information is then combined with location and voter ID information from the electoral register.
Big data alone won't solve your problems
Britain may not be as advanced yet, but it is inching closer. US campaign wizards were flown in to help harness each party's digital potential. The top three parties also sought innovative data management platforms. One of the parties that stood out in its use of big data were the Liberal Democrats. The party's canvassing database, Connect, is the same system used by Obama and ensures that individuals canvassed by the party were served ads on social media that reflected their key concerns.
On the eve of the general election the party launched its biggest targeted digital campaign to date, delivering more than two million targeted messages to voters through Facebook and YouTube in the final hours of the general election campaign. A similar push during the 2014 local elections demonstrated that voters were more likely to vote Liberal Democrats. The party's digital leaders claimed it was the first time any political party had been able to target digital communications in such a way. So what went wrong?
UK Politics has a UX problem
It is important to see politics in the context of other established brands struggling to connect with new audiences. There has always been a disconnect between politicians and people, though digital has the power to both break and tighten that divide, especially among younger audiences. However, digital media does not work in silos. Maybe it should not come as a surprise that an apparatus that comes together every five years lacks the knowledge of digital marketing. However, that UK parties have not been able to adopt tactics proven successful by their US counterparts is surprising. For any modern marketer the use of big data campaigning would have been an exciting and promising chance for a more holistic approach to political advertising.
Unfortunately none of the main political parties moved beyond traditional methods to gain a firmer grip of digital marketing, ignoring key touchpoints that could sway undecided voters. While research asserts that people find traditional methods still the most helpful, these media channels are cluttered with messaging from all parties and therefore not as effective as digital media to galvanise the electorate.
In view of a disengaged electorate, this raises the question why political parties in the UK lack a digital always-on strategy? Offering resonating content in innovative ways could help engage and position parties at the front of mind. A move away from a spectacle that visits town every five years to every-day conversations might in turn change political culture towards a more collaborative and participatory UX, where the focus lies on the change for the group as a whole. In a time when voices for proportional representation become louder, such a UX might not just be a win for the 'political consumer' in the UK.