The Prime Minister fired the opening shot in the online election battle this week, with her first ever Q&A session with the public on Facebook.
Theresa May fielded questions during the 45-minute social media session with ITV News’s Robert Peston.
With every passing election and referendum the digital space has become increasingly important to politicians trying to reach their audience.
Why? Digital campaigns deliver in three key ways for political campaigns: message, money and mobilisation.
When it comes to getting their message out, all the parties are using targeting to deliver key messages directly to voters in marginal seats.
Social media was initially perceived as a way of reaching millennials and the youth vote, but the parties have developed increasingly sophisticated tools allowing them to target specific audiences of all ages. The Guardian has reported that the Labour party is using a new tool called Promote, which is linked with Labour’s voter database.
Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s joint national elections coordinator, explains: “One of the things that we’ve learned, particularly from Sadiq Khan’s campaign in London for the mayoralty, is that we can now use social media in a very sophisticated way, targeting the people that we want to reach out to with certain messages, certain policy announcements.”
He said Labour believed Facebook to be a much more effective platform for campaigning than Twitter, which could be “a bit of an echo-chamber”.
The Conservatives successfully used targeted advertising on social media during the 2015 general election campaign. Using micro-targeting messaging and Facebook’s powerful targeting tools to reach different voter groups in marginal seats with information on key policies which effect them. The Conservatives are now experimenting using a range of tools to get their message out, with Theresa May conducting a Telephone Town Hall event to discuss the key issues in the manifesto.
The Facebook session, during which organisers said 40,000 questions were received, is a case in point. It was part of ITV News Leaders Live – a special online series with the political party leaders in the run up to the general election.
Not to be outdone, the New Statesmen is launching a “pop-up” website for the election. The intention is that alongside content, interactive data pages will track all the latest polls, as well as give regional analysis on voting predictions.
Other organisations have developed tools to help people make decisions based on what they actually care about, for instance The Patients Association has launched www.vote4thenhs.co.uk
More United launched last year at www.moreunited.uk, crowdfunding political candidates based on values, rather than party.
Money is the other reason political parties are going digital. They are getting ever more sophisticated in their fundraising, with supporters being segmented based on their previous donation history. Sign ups to the parties email lists are being engaged to donate to support very specific causes, for instance funding 500 Conservative party leaflets in a marginal seat – or you can even buy a Jeremy Corbyn tote bag, with the profits going to the Labour general election campaign. Although it is social media that creates all the buzz, it is the parties’ under-the-radar email programmes which will generate the most revenue.
Finally, election boffins know that the internet is now the key way to mobilise campaigners. The parties are trying to get supporters to switch off their laptops and mobiles and talk to voters face-to-face – and ironically, the way to achieve this is through email. All the parties are now sending emails to supporters encouraging them to get out on the doorstep and volunteer in their nearest marginal.
So we can look forward to more online engagement from politicians as #GE2017 takes off this week as the manifestos are launched.