General Election 2017: content rules

June 1st, 2017

As the voting public gears up for the election on June 8, the main parties are pumping out content like never before. But it’s hard to discern much of a strategy. CMA consultant editor Dominic Mills looks at the efforts of the three main parties through the prism of content marketing

It’s not that long ago – let’s say 2005 was the last of the old-style campaigns – that general electioneering was a relatively straightforward business. The main tools included TV PPBs, lots of direct mail, a few posters and a manifesto. There was, of course, lots of spin doctoring but the platforms on which the practitioners could perform their dark arts were limited.

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama changed the game for ever. It was the first social media election. As platforms proliferated, so content became more important. After all, you’ve got to have something to put out there. And you need some big teams to do it.

If you think about it, the classic arts of content marketing overlay perfectly onto contemporary electioneering: strategy; content calendars; tone of voice; targeting; messaging; engaging with and rewarding loyal customers; finding new ones; finding superfans and endorsers and engaging them sufficiently so that they spread the message; ‘Martini’ any-time, any-place marketing; and creating and repurposing content for the relevant platforms.

And while parties (and individual politicians) increasingly adopt brand-centred thinking over the longer-term, elections differ in one critical way from classic brand activity: the campaign is short, sharp and brutish, and the ‘fog’ of election war can mean parties are easily dragged off the strategic high road into tactical cul-de-sacs.

Content compared

With all this in mind (and in a carefully non-political way), how, viewed as content marketing campaigns, do the three main parties stack up?

Let’s start with the manifesto, the key content building block of any election campaign, but focusing on the look, tone, feel and readability rather than the policies.

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Manifesto: Labour and the Lib Dems lead here, with the Conservatives a long way back. Its offering looks like something from the dark ages – stern and Calvinist in its presentation.

Text is set across a wide measure – hard to read – and sentences are verbose. One, on energy policy comes in at 70 words. Pictures? None. It’s hard going.

By contrast, those from Labour and the Lib Dems are bright, breezy and modern. Both include social media share buttons, the Lib Dems adding to LinkedIn, Messenger and Pinterest to Facebook and Twitter. The Lib Dems also ease the reader burden by breaking up the text with bullet points.

Both leaders feature heavily in pictures, as does generic imagery. It’s not perfect, but at least they offer visual relief.

The cynic in me wonders if the Conservative design and presentation is deliberate: do they really want anyone to actually read the manifesto, as opposed to consume it passively by soundbite.

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YouTube: The party YouTube channel is the obvious place to feature the leader and the TV PPBs that voters do their best to ignore – and none veers from this strategy. With video consumption rising, particularly among hard-to-reach younger voters, it’s the obvious place to focus effort and fresh, made-on-the-hoof material.

Of the three, the Lib Dems’ channel is most off the pace. So, off the pace, in fact, that you wouldn’t know even there was an election on — the page is underpopulated, and most videos are three or four months old. Have they de-prioritised video, or just not got the resources? I’ll take the latter.

The Conservatives put Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ video front and centre, followed by a series of individual policy area videos, and then attack videos on Jeremy Corbyn and his team. Viewing levels are high, with some in the 80,000-90,000 mark.

The Labour channel – well populated – opens with Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto speech. There are no videos attacking the opposition, and average viewing levels are in the thousands – well below Conservative levels.

Facebook/Twitter: The roots of the ‘Corbynista’ movement lie in social media, so it’s no surprise that Labour is on the front foot on these platforms. By follower/community numbers, Labour outscores its rivals by some way with 410,000 and 783,000 fans respectively.

The content posts are frequent and topical – for example a video on pensioners a day after the Conservative announcements on pensions and social care costing.

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Conservative Twitter efforts and reach (253,000 followers) don’t match Labour’s, but they are as active as their major opponents. A key difference is that there’s a regular seam of ‘attack’ posts targeting Corbyn and his key allies. On Facebook by contrast with Labour, they are less active and with two thirds the reach.

As for the Lib Dems, they (perhaps predictably) lack the social media traction of their bigger rivals. Activity levels on Twitter are varied – including posters, even info as well as ‘donate’ buttons – and higher than the party’s respective Facebook pages.

Corbyn and Farron both have more personal followers than their parties, while you get the sense that Theresa May has to be dragged kicking and screaming to Twitter, confining herself to a bland and underpopulated official No 10 account.

Does any of this matter much? Analysts in 2015 famously claimed Labour won the social media war – which seems irrelevant if you lose the ‘votes’ war. But I suspect that over time – and as both Obama and Trump have shown – the relationship between the two in the UK will become closer.

Verdict: hire proper content skills

When Donald Trump won the US presidency last year, there was an explosion of comment along the lines of ‘What marketeers can learn from Trump’s success’.  I’m not so sure that will work here. It’s more likely to be the other way round – ‘What politicians can learn from marketers’ — because, despite all the hard work and content production, much of the content effort seems unfocused and reactive.

This may be inevitable in an election, but I suspect that all would have done better had there been one client, one strategy, one direction, and one controlling hand: exactly what you get with clients and agencies who truly understand how to make the most of content marketing.

This begs the question: next time round, will any of the parties hire a specialist content agency? It’s not unknown. One was actively employed during the Scottish referendum. And all the parties are used to dealing with ad agencies, so (as long as they don’t start thinking their ad agency can do the content too) it’s not a huge leap to add a content specialist.

Whether any content agency will want to take on what will be an exhausting, resource-stretching but potentially exhilarating gig is up to them. All they have to point out is the overlap between content marketing and contemporary election marketing….

Dominic Mills, Consultant Editor, The CMA

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