General Election 2017: Did digital marketing shape surprise results?

Recently, political events have (perhaps surprisingly) had a significant impact on the digital marketing industry. For example, in the wake of the recent YouTube scandals, brands are much more conscious of ensuring they are seen as responsible advertisers, by ensuring they do not associate themselves with websites or content that could damage their brand image.

Equally, digital marketing has itself had an impact on politics – perhaps most recently noticeable in the 2017 UK General Election, where campaigning online was just as fierce as it was on the ground.

In this blog, I will highlight the digital marketing strategies undertaken by the two main political parties during the 2017 UK General Election. Which party understood its audience better and had a more effective digital marketing campaign? Labour and the Tories had very different approaches which may have helped bring about the surprising results.

The Tory Strategy – Negative Messaging to a Narrow Audience

During the 2015 General Election, many attributed the success of the Conservative party to its investment in digital marketing. The party had invested £1.2m of its ad budget on Facebook campaigns alone. In contrast, Labour allocated just £16K to the same platform!

During the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives did not hold back on online marketing spend either. As election day loomed, reports suggested the Tories were using targeted, ‘hidden’ advertising on Facebook to appeal to voters in marginal constituencies, spending £1.2m on negative anti-Jeremy Corbyn online adverts.

In fact, it is claimed that one particular video launched by the Conservatives (attacking Jeremy Corbyn for comments he made in the past) became the most viewed political advert in the UK! Despite this video attracting more than nine million views, experts suggest the negative tone did not inspire voters in the way Labour’s more upbeat messages did.

These tactics – which relied heavily on targeting swing constituencies with negative messages about their rivals – helped the Conservatives secure a majority in 2015. With the same strategy applied in 2017, and a 20-point lead over Labour, an increased Tory majority looked extremely likely. But, ironically, was this recycled marketing strategy part of the reason behind the Tory party’s poor election performance in 2017?

tory PPC ad for wrexham

In Wrexham (a Tory target seat) searches for Labour’s Brexit stance returned ads from the Tories focusing on border control and laws

It could be argued that the success of the 2015 digital marketing strategy for the Conservative party came as a result of Labour’s failure to adequately invest in its own digital marketing strategy. Fast forward to 2017 when Labour took to social media to capture voters, their marketing strategy appeared much more expansive than that of the Tories. The “Who Targets Me?” project, which monitored political advertising on Facebook during the General Election, claimed people in just 205 constituencies saw adverts from the Conservatives. That was less than half the constituencies targeted by Labour.

Could a potential failure of the Conservative campaign be their relatively smaller audience targeting? It’s likely to be a contributing factor. Certainly, by the end of the election campaign, Theresa May’s Facebook page had just 410,000 likes, less than half of her rival Jeremy Corbyn.

Theresa May Facebook Page

Jeremy Corbyn Facebook page

Jeremy Corbyn’s Facebook page currently has 1.34m likes compared to Theresa May’s 433k


The Labour Story – Positive messaging to a wider audience

It seems that Labour learned from its mistakes during the 2015 General Election when it neglected its social media campaigning and lost the election.

Impressively, in the six weeks after the announcement of the 2017 General Election, “We Are Social” revealed that the Labour Party increased its following by 61% across Social Media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The Conservatives’ social media following rose by just 6% in the same period. Could this focus on social media explain why Labour performed much better than originally anticipated or were the increased levels of social media engagement a reflection of the changing national mood?

It has been reported that the Labour party tested a variety of positive messaging, and understood the importance of celebrity endorsements and slick, shareable videos. Labour’s campaign was endorsed by a number of celebrities such as Stormzy, which made the party’s message a lot more visible to non-traditional voters not usually engaged in politics, including many young people.

Sam Jeffers, co-founder of “Who Targets Me?”, suggests: “The most obvious advantage Labour had was their focus on getting young people out to vote. If you contact young people with a positive message, you’re telling them that you care. The Tories didn’t do that.”

A record 622,000 people registered to vote in the final 24 hours of the registration period alone – many of them believed to be young voters who were inspired by Labour’s message.

Labour’s online campaigning was also supported by grassroots organizations such as Momentum. Whilst the Conservatives produced videos for people to watch (without much further interaction), Momentum built content that was more likely to be shared among family and friends. According to The Independent, “evidence suggests voters find content more convincing if it has been sent to them by someone they know rather than a political party”.

This also meant Momentum only spent £2,000 on Facebook advertising, in contrast to the Conservatives’ £1m. However, Labour’s positive messaging was much more inspirational to their chosen target audience and thus more likely to be shared than the Tory party’s negative messaging.

To Conclude

Whilst the Conservative strategy proved to be successful during the 2015 general election, it can be argued that this was mainly due to the lack of competition on social media platforms as Labour had neglected this opportunity back then.

In 2017, when Labour invested more into its digital marketing strategy, and the Conservatives re-deployed their previous strategy, it was clear that Labour made significant gains by showcasing a positive message to a wider audience – especially young people, who dominated social media platforms.

In essence, Labour understood the basics of a Facebook advertising strategy that rewarded advertisers who were more relevant, which Facebook measures by engagement with posts. Essentially, Labour got out more whilst investing less, whilst the Conservatives pumped in more money but failed to engage convincingly with their audience.


by Jawdat Nassour
27 June 2017



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