A look into the digital battleground on Facebook this election

Election battlegrounds around the world are increasingly moving into the digital world. The UK’s 2019 snap election is no different. In fact, more than any other that has gone before it, this December election is one that will be both won and lost online. #GE2019

Authors: Lewis Parker
  • Reading time: 10 min.
  • Posted on: November 12, 2019

This election, what approach is each party taking? What messages are they pushing? And who are they targeting? 

Thankfully, Facebook’s Ad Library – a transparency tool launched in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal – allows us to see details on those running political advertisements, but it is still limited in what it shows. 

The numbers at a glance

The Conservative party have out-spent all the other major political parties in the first week of campaigning on Facebook with £60,059 on digital ad spend. Labour occupy second place, with £52,263, and the Lib Dems come a distant third, with £32,526. 

Having the budget to reach millions of voters is one thing, but what are the three main parties actually saying, and who are they targeting? 

We’ve seen from past elections that the Conservatives and those who spearheaded Vote Leave heavily relied on Facebook for spreading their message. They’ve also been significantly more advanced. Don’t be distracted by the public gaffes and PR mess ups like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Grenfell comments. The Conservatives are once again relying heavily on super-targeted advertising to get out the Tory vote in marginal seats. 

The Conservatives

Looking at their party’s Facebook ads over the last week, one thing becomes apparent.  They’re laser-focussed on key constituencies they believe they’re able to win. Much of their creative and ad copy is hyper-localised In the Brexit heartlands, such as Bolsover and Wakefield. Their message is simple:

Back Boris to get Brexit done

One of the biggest issues that have plagued elections for decades is that people in seats regarded as “safe” have felt voting to be a pointless exercise. As it was once aptly put about a Labour safe seat “if you put forward a pig wearing a red rosette, folk will vote for it.”

Similarly, the Conservatives know that most of their new and existing voters are likely to be exhausted of the indecision of parliament and feel disillusioned that they can change anything. The Conservatives are therefore attempting to galvanise this base by showing them that they the individual voter have the power this election. The copy and creative is tailored solely around the person viewing the ad: “Your vote will be the difference”, “It only takes XX people to switch their vote in XX to elect a Conservative MP that will Back Boris to Get Brexit Done…” They’re trying to appeal to both the contextual and emotional voter in relation to Brexit. 

The Conservatives also know that if they want to maintain the keys to Number 10, they can’t solely rely on winning Brexit heartlands. Their approach to more liberal constituencies like Twickenham, St Albans, and Battersea who have stronger Remain sentiments is quite different. In these ads, Brexit isn’t mentioned at all. Instead, they focus on the local candidate. A friendly looking headshot of the candidate appears on the creative accompanied by “Vote for [candidate], your local voice in [constituency].

All their ads are driving audiences to a custom landing page to capture users’ data. The page asks people to sign up to back Boris and get Brexit done, presumably to retarget them to get out the vote on election day.

The Labour Party 

Labour has been taking a more national-led approach. The majority of their ads utilise the same creative, with slightly altered copy:

“Real change” appears to be Labour’s  election buzzword – it features on most of their ads.

The party is focussing its efforts on emotion and connection to those who want to see real, progressive change in society. This is most prevalent in their ad copy. Like the Conservatives making it about the individual voter, Labour are talking about being a part of something bigger, being more connected: “The future is ours to make, together. It’s time for real change.” This is heavily focussed around affiliation and authenticity in a world where many feel individuality and deceit is the predominant norm.

To many however, their main message will get lost. “Vote Labour for real change” – but what does that even mean? 

Ads not focussed around real change, are instead tailored towards Labour’s other big issue: The NHS.  They’re spending a lot to push out the message that suggests Brexit means selling the NHS to Donald Trump. Securing and saving the NHS has typically been a message that Labour has owned, but this may not cut through and work for Labour as it has in the past. A recent poll showed that Johnson and Corbyn are neck-and-neck with the public’s trust on the NHS. 

Unlike the Conservatives, Labour aren’t directing users to a custom landing page; their focus is on building up page likes, and getting people to click attending to a Facebook event voting Labour on election day. 

The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems are using a predictable message: Stop Brexit.  Their creative is heavily focussed on video content, and like Labour, they’re deploying more national-based messaging:

“Vote for the biggest remain party” in an apparent front to try and gain Labour voters, and “Stop Brexit and build a brighter future.” 

The Lib Dems are in an interesting position. They’ve been on the gain over recent months, and the election of Jo Swinson as party leader has given a fresh female face to the pale and stale other two parties. Many ads feature Swinson and are seemingly aimed more at women, trying to highlight their female party leader to appeal to those who are tired of business as usual. 

Their strategy is to pick up votes from across the board, and this becomes apparent when you look at the way the two other major parties are targeting them.  When you Google ‘Lib Dems’ you’ll see a Labour ad reading “Vote Lib Dems, get Boris Johnson” and an almost identical Conservative ad reading: “Vote Lib Dems, get Corbyn.” Both go to custom landing pages explaining why the Lib Dems will only hand the other party a majority. 

Despite spending the least,  the Lib Dems have had over 300 different ads running throughout the last week, though most of them were the same ads with slight variations of the same creative/copy. Their messaging is trying to appeal to the emotional and rational voter; those who are tired of Brexit and are trying to bring optimism back into politics by showing that they  can “build a brighter future.” 

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems are directing users from their ads to a custom landing page to gather data and retarget.  Uniquely though, they have two landing pages: one asks users to pledge to vote for the party to stop Brexit, and another that shows the party’s “Plan for the future”

Winning the battle so far is…. 

Hyper-targeted, tailored language always wins. We’ve seen it work in recent elections around the world, and it’s likely to work again. We’re only looking at week one, but while both Labour and the Lib Dems are focussing on the national picture, the Conservative’s are putting all their efforts into convincing the key constituencies with messages important to them. 

A general election can be won with just a few hundred votes in the right places. In the 2017 general election, over ten constituency seats across the country were won with fewer than 100 votes, and another 20 with fewer than 400. For this reason, by ad spend and focussing locally, the Conservatives are winning the digital battle so far. But with a few weeks left to go, and with the British electorate behaving more unpredictable than ever before, everything is still in play.

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