Thanks to the use of social media by Obama’s team in 2008 and 2012, the role of digital marketing in politics has been a hot topic. 

Online was a key battleground in the recent general election, and this trend will only increase in the years to come. 

I’ve been talking to Craig Elder, Digital Director at the Conservative Party, about the role digital played in a Conservative victory. 

How has the use of digital marketing developed between the 2010 and 2015 elections?  

I think the most important development is one of scale. Even more people are using the internet now than in 2010, and of course social media too.

Take Facebook for example, which is now used by around 53% of the UK population, which means it now offers phenomenal reach to all sorts of audiences.

At the last election people would say social media was a great way to reach young people, but now you’re just as likely to find your mum or dad on Facebook as your younger relatives.

Equally importantly is that 53% are pretty evenly spread across the country, and from constituency to constituency, meaning that no matter where you want your message to be seen, Facebook is going to be an effective way to do that.

How much of the Conservatives’ electoral success this year can be attributed to digital channels? 

Unlike in 2010, when I think it’s fair to say all parties treated digital as a bit of a novelty, and focused on publicity hits as opposed to real, measurable, results-driven activity – I think we can say with real confidence that digital played an absolutely vital role in our success in 2015.

Targeted activity – on Facebook, YouTube, even local newspapers sites – was focused on getting our clear message on the choice at the election out to undecided voters in marginal constituencies.

And because everything we do is now so measurable, it’s easy to see whether your message is being seen by the right people and what activity that’s driving. 

Were there any challenges in convincing people that spending on digital marketing was worthwhile?  

Clearly there’s always a need to show people that what you’re doing is working, and that it’s worth continued investment.

That’s why, when we started work on this campaign back in the Autumn of 2013, we sat down and looked at a range of different digital activity that we thought could be effective and then tested it thoroughly.

By the end of the year we were then in a position to say OK, here’s what works well and what doesn’t, and this is what we should invest both time and money in.

That period of intensive testing meant we could focus exclusively on what would actually help us win the election and ignore things that people might assume would play a big part, but in actual fact would just end up being a costly distraction. 

How does marketing for a political party differ from ‘normal’ digital marketing?  

I don’t think it does – in fact, I’d say that all brands, all companies should be looking at political parties as templates for how to develop and implement successful digital strategies.

Because with the speed of social media, the need for regular content and the requirement to react all hours of the day, businesses need to start thinking and operating like political campaigns.

That means learning the lessons of political parties and campaigns – using their tools and techniques – and having the structure and processes in place that allow you to be flexible and always in campaign mode.  

What worked well for the Conservatives?  

The channels that were most effective for us were the ones that allowed us to show people how our plan was delivering for them and their family.

So that meant Facebook played a big part, but YouTube pre-roll adverts did too.

The one additional thing I’d say is not to forget the importance of email. By the election, 1.4m people had signed up to hear from the Conservatives by email and that was a very powerful tool.

That’s 1.4 m people – many of whom have signed up precisely because they’re undecided and because they’ve signed up you can have an ongoing discussion with them about the issues that are going to decide the election.

But also within that list are the 100,000 people who signed up for Team2015, our volunteer network, and unprecedented numbers of people who gave small donations to the Party to help our campaign.

The other thing that I’d say was very effective was gamification.

Our Share the Facts website and mobile app was aimed at our most committed supporters, and enabled them to share graphics, blogs and videos on a range of issues with their friends.

They were given points for sharing content, and also when friends clicked and re-shared their content – and prizes if they finished near the top of the leaderboard such as signed books, posters and other exclusive items.

And our supporters’ efforts helped us get in front of an extra 3m people every week.

How did you use Facebook to target voters? 

The Facebook advertising platform allows for exactly the sort of targeting a political party needs – geography, age, gender etc. 

What’s more, it allows you to speak directly to people, to be in their newsfeeds when they’re scrolling through on their phone on the way home from work.

But the key thing is to be relevant – so while our messages were always on the economy and the choice on the economy at the election, we had different content for different audiences.

So older people for example would get something on what a strong economy means for pensions, younger people on our Help to Buy policy and so on.

And as the election moved on and we started to speak about the 23 seats we needed to secure a majority, we were obviously able to target people in some of the seats we needed to win to explain to them why their vote could be decisive, which is a pretty powerful message.

It’s been said that Facebook is right wing and Twitter is more left wing. What are your thoughts on this? 

I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Sure, the Conservatives are the biggest Party on Facebook and David Cameron has the largest following of the Party leaders but I think if you scroll through your newsfeed around election time it’s pretty balanced. 

But what is clear is that Facebook – with that 53% reach and that geographic and demographic spread – is a great place to reach out to normal people.

On Twitter, I think it would be fair to say that Labour dedicated more of their time to that particular channel than we did.

We took a very clear view that Twitter is more the place where committed supporters whip other committed supporters into a frenzy, but very little is achieved in terms of reaching out to undecided voters.

And that’s what your strategy has to be about, otherwise you’re not going to win.

In the marginal seat where I live, I saw a lot of billboard advertising and received plenty of direct mail from the Conservatives – do you see these tactics being replaced by digital in the future? 

I think that process is already starting – but it’s about the right mix, just like it is for any brand when they’re looking at their media plan.

So you should see the posters, receive the letters, but also have those messages supported by things you see in your Facebook newsfeed or in YouTube pre-roll or on your local newspaper website.

I also noticed lots of pre-roll ads on YouTube for the Conservatives. How did these work for you? 

Much as with Facebook, it was very effective.

Firstly, it’s an interesting channel because – again, like Facebook – you can target on geography and other factors.

Secondly, video is a very engaging medium meaning you can really get your message across if you get it right.

But too often political parties spend their time making a lovely three minute video which never ends up being watched by anyone beyond a couple of thousand obsessives.

This is because it doesn’t really fit the medium and also because they’ve not given any thought on how they’re going to get the video not just seen, but seen by the right audience.

Pre-roll helps with that, because it means you can make a far shorter – say 30 second – video about a key policy and put it in front of the type of people who will find it interesting.

Given that the aim was to convince people to put a cross next to a Conservative candidate’s name, rather than some sort of sale or sign up, how did you measure the overall impact of digital on the campaign?   

Just because there’s not a sale at the end of the process doesn’t mean you can’t find the right metrics to judge success – whether it’s reach, frequency, relevance of content, click through rate, sign up rate, cost per sign up etc.

And those metrics don’t just help you decide whether you’re having an impact – they also help you make informed decisions about what’s working and what’s not pretty quickly.  

How do you see digital developing for politics over the next five years? 

A lot of people said 2010 was the first ‘digital election’, but I think history has shown that to not really be right – mainly because so much of what the parties were doing wasn’t really getting outside of the bubble, or reaching real people.

In contrast, I think our 2015 campaign has finally settled the question of whether digital can play an important role.

The next challenge for the Conservatives is to build on that success, lock in everything we’ve achieved in putting digital right at the heart of the campaigning effort – and I’d expect that digital will play an even more important role in the 2020 campaign.

Mark Flanagan, Senior Partner for Content and Digital Strategy at Portland will be talking about who won the digital election at our Future of Digital Marketing event on June 11 in London.