Who won the digital election?

I blame Barack Obama I really do. Ever since he won the Presidential election in 2008, politicians and the media in the UK have been transfixed by the idea that social media can be decisive in elections. Every campaign is now judged against his.

We need to move on. Obama won in 2008 because he was Obama and offered a fresh start to a country disappointed and confused over the last eight years. Politics is platform agnostic. It’s the messenger and the message that counts, not technology and channels.

The 2015 General Election had a very dramatic ending. But the campaign itself was one of the dullest, most predictable, risk averse, controlled, unengaging and traditional elections in living memory. What we learnt is a boring campaign does not become any more compelling by putting it online.

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Levels of engagement were poor. Of all the tweets that mentioned the official party accounts during the campaign, Conservatives, Labour, SNP and UKIP only replied to 1% of them. The Greens did better at 11%. The Lib Dems did best of all at 25% – not that it did them much good.

Because the race was so close – at least according to the polls – the parties were not prepared to take any risks. Local candidate, too, were relentlessly on message and uninventive. They were all scarred by the experience of Emily Thornberry who had to resign from Labour’s front bench during the Rochester by election for tweeting an apparently patronising picture of white van man.

On a positive note, the digital election was a highly visual affair. Sky News’ video parodies – such as the Ballot Ballad – became You Tube hits. So did the excellent Green Party video featuring the leaders as a boy band. Much fun was had at David Cameron’s expense for forgetting his favourite football team.

But the Prime Minister’s most popular contribution on social media was the tweet of him hugging his wife after the result. Ed Miliband’s boldest creative act was not digital but to employ a stonemason.

Overall, social media offered considerable mockery and commentary but very little sense of persuasion. Online content was largely a sideshow to the main event, providing some entertainment value and feeding the voracious news cycle.

The 2010 campaign could claim to have broken new ground, dominated as it was by the first ever Leaders’ Debates. 2015, in contrast, reminded me very much, including the result, of 1992.

It seemed as if the traditional right wing press set the agenda. Far from offering much that was fresh or innovative, social media merely amplified and exaggerated the offline debate, reinforcing the narratives set by mainstream media.

Even the #Milifandom phenomenon just underlined the media impression of Ed as a nerd – which is why the press loved it. The only leader who largely escaped parody was Nicola Sturgeon who instead was painted as the most dangerous woman in Britain – at least in the English editions of the newspapers.

In Scotland, the SNP fought a more engaging campaign with their leader, horror of horrors, actually being allowed to meet real people. In many ways, this was a legacy of the Independence Referendum campaign and Scottish voters were already galvanised. It helped of course when you have almost all the Scottish newspapers cheering you on.

The political parties certainly invested more in social media this time. The Conservatives spent a million pounds on Facebook advertising but their communications were generic and not well targeted. An avalanche of emails were sent by the parties but the opportunity was missed to tailor these to individual subscribers.

There was also certainly plenty of noise created by social media. Twitter calculated that nearly four million tweets were sent on Election Day alone. But to what effect? According to the global web index, seven out of ten voters polled didn’t look to social at all for information on the campaign.

I doubt this will change anytime soon. Politicians know that they can’t ignore the power of social media but are reluctant to give away the control that you need to do to be successful in this space.

It’s possible that as the influence of traditional media brands diminishes, the power of new third party platforms such as Buzzfeed will grow. Celebrities, such as Russell Brand, may assume greater influence on the voting intentions of young people. But I won’t be holding my breath.

The next big national campaign in Britain around the EU referendum may give us a clue on the impact of social media on politics. The big question is whether the traditional newspapers will dominate the campaign and set the agenda once again? Or will younger voters, who are generally more pro-Europe, engage in the debate, shape the campaign and impact the result? It is going to be interesting to watch.

This is an edited version of a talk given at the “Future of Digital Marketing” conference, organized by eConsultancy on June 11th 2015 in London

Mark Flanagan is Portland’s Senior Partner for Content and Digital Strategy.

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Mark Flanagan