The social media election: how campaigners can avoid painful gaffes

While political parties are keen to woo young voters via social media, to date they’ve had a rocky ride on the platform. Here are some pitfalls to avoid

With the general election looming we are seeing more questions being asked about how political parties will win over the younger voters, which experts believe could be the key to Downing Street. While most commentators acknowledge that social media is the way to reach this younger demographic, the last election saw only 44% of young people between 18-24 turn out to vote, despite significant use of social media by all the main parties. So what went wrong?

Social media was a massive success for Barack Obama, who in 2008 was dubbed the first social media president when he used social to engage young voters during his presidential campaign (this paid dividends during his re-election campaign in 2012 when he had twice the social audience and 20 times the engagement of competitor Mitt Romney). So with UK young adults spending 1.33 hours a day on social media (more than any other media channel) it seems logical that the political party which owns the social space will capture the hearts and minds of young voters, just like Obama.

However, to date, politics in the UK has had a rocky ride on social media. Last year #CameronMustGo was allegedly tweeted more than 100,000 times a day and MPs such as Emily Thornberry have found themselves out of a job after tweeting. So how might campaigners avoid these gaffes in the future and what might the key trends be?

Media partners

We’re looking at a future where instead of courting massive media companies such as News International, political parties will attempt to leverage the influence of those tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Twitter and YouTube already attempted to host a UK democracy event last year with a live Q&A called Bite The Ballot, which party leaders such as Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband took part in, but with viewing figures in the low thousands it might be suggested that this experiment fell flat. However, with Facebook’s potential ability to reach 9.2m young people with one promoted post the influence of these platforms can’t be ignored.

Lack of regulation

This is the first election when social has reached higher user penetration within the UK than traditional media, yet it still remains an unregulated medium for politicians. Nigel Farage has already predicted that this campaign will be the “dirtiest” in history and we could see a repeat of the Nike ASA incident from 2013 with the Electoral Commission writing new rules.

Snackable policies

Perhaps the key trend for political parties will be how social can make policies more accessible. The statistics show that young adults are unlikely to engage with long-form content on TV or in the papers, yet voraciously consume all types of video content online. So, political parties should be thinking how policies could be communicated using Vines, YouTube and potentially even Snapchat.

Big data

Just as important as how political parties use social media to get their message across and improve perception will be what methods they are employing within their command centres to monitor opinion and change the campaign trail in real-time (much like Obama did in 2012). However, this can prove disastrous when used in the wrong context as the Yes campaign found out during the Scottish referendum when a Twitter conversation falsely suggested they held the majority.

Rise of the renegade

Where politics is concerned, social media to date has largely been about renegade movements drumming up momentum to speak out against political policies or hijack campaigning. Such as the humorous hijacking of #WhyImVotingUKIP, “I’ll Vote Green If You Do’ a pledge site created by a Green party MP (so far 14,000 people have pledged) and a successful petition calling on TV networks to allow smaller parties into the televised debate. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a movement similar to #NoMakeUpSelfie and #JeSuisCharlie nearer to the polling date.

The opportunity to sway opinion and mobilise young supporters is definitely there to be taken advantage of. The question is how will politicians cope with being constantly under the microscope with gaffes having the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people within minutes? And how will they manage the ebbs and flows of the build up to the election? Only time will tell.

Allan Blair is strategy director and Ned Hodge is social strategist at Tribal Worldwide, London

To get weekly news analysis, job alerts and event notifications direct to your inbox, sign up free for Media Network membership.

All Guardian Media Network content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “Brought to you by” – find out more here.

More like this:

The general election is an important digital test for local news
How to win a televised political leadership debate
2015 election countdown: will ad tech help revolutionise campaigns?

To get weekly news analysis, job alerts and event notifications direct to your inbox, sign up free for Media Network membership.

All Guardian Media Network content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “Brought to you by” – find out more here.

Allan Blair and Ned Hodge

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Welcome to the social media election that never was
So far, the social media strategies used by the main political parties in this year’s general election have been routine, predictable and overly cautious

David Fletcher

27, Apr, 2015 @1:05 PM

Article image
Seven social media strategy mistakes brands still make
From not clearly aligning with a business goal to expecting content to go viral without investment, here are the key social media errors to avoid

Jerry Daykin

16, Jul, 2015 @9:07 AM

Article image
Mobile World Congress 2015: what it means for marketing pros
From the fragmentation of the social media landscape to data-driven creativity, James Hilton highlights the key marketing trends emerging from MWC 2015

James Hilton

04, Mar, 2015 @12:05 PM

Article image
The golden days of free, mass social media reach never really existed
Marketers must get over the misconception that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter used to offer free ways to create meaningful engagement at scale, says Jerry Daykin

Jerry Daykin

12, Jan, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
The general election is an important digital test for local news
The speed and growth of digital channels means the local press will have to be at the top of its digital game in this election. Ashley Highfield and Paul Napier report

Ashley Highfield and Paul Napier

02, Feb, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Meet the social media stars of the general election
From the Green party’s political broadcast to #milifandom, we round up social media’s best bits from the election

Kim Willis

13, May, 2015 @10:30 AM

Article image
Brand marketers need a new perspective on digital marketing
Marketers must shape their digital activity to reach the millions of consumers who aren’t clicking, not just active engagers

Jerry Daykin

07, Jul, 2015 @11:29 AM

Article image
Size does matter: consumers rally behind the small and local movement
The vastness of the web with 41,00 new Facebook posts per second is increasing our desire for small, locally made products

Marian Salzman

26, Feb, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Brands experiment with Snapchat to reach and engage millennials
Lynx, McDonald’s and Southampton FC are all testing the marketing potential of self-destructing photo app

Adam Reader

21, Aug, 2014 @11:10 AM

Article image
Five things great brands will do differently on social media in 2016
It’s easy to be distracted by the latest shiny innovations, but a focus on quality content and media planning are key for successful social media marketing

Jerry Daykin

05, Jan, 2016 @10:15 AM