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Hard Evidence: is Facebook a good use of election campaign budgets?

Please like me. PA

News that the Conservative Party has been spending more than £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising has its supporters and rivals all wondering if this is money well spent.

It seems like a lot of money and indeed, it represents a significantly bigger investment than any of the other main political parties, but then again, the potential reach is huge.

Labour spends ten times less per month on the social network at just £10,000. And although UKIP spent up to £3,000 on Facebook messages for specific by-elections, the party generally only spends £100 per month.

How far does 100k go?

The Facebook pages for the main political parties in the UK tend to use images with short text descriptions and animations or short videos. The general theme seems to be mocking opponents.

This is part of the American-style campaigning that is engulfing the UK in the run up to the 2015 election. Barack Obama famously led the pack on the use of social media when he maximised Twitter in 2008 to pull in small donations from a vast number of supporters. He is credited with being the first social media president who understood the power of social engagement and content “virality” to maximise reach.

Each of the posts on the Conservative Facebook page at the moment is carefully constructed to maximise its viral life. There is satire aimed at discrediting Labour and more positive messages highlighting achievements.

There is an image poking fun at shadow chancellor Ed Balls, for example, after he forgot the surname of Bill Thomas, his party’s small business task force leader, in a recent interview.

Balls’ blunder makes Facebook fodder. Facebook

Another shows Ed Miliband cosying up to Gerry Adams and Alex Salmond at the door of Number 10 after The Sun reported that Sinn Fein was considering a coalition deal with Labour.

Powerful photoshopping skills on show. Facebook

Each post on the Conservative page has several thousand likes and hundreds of comments and shares. But notably, whoever is running the page for the party doesn’t seem to be engaging much with the people leaving comments – some of which verge on online bullying. A picture is posted and then left for the crowd, with little conversation from the official page account thereafter.

This gives us a glimpse of where the party’s £100,000 is going. It seems to be being used to amplify the posts to advertise them to a wider audience rather than employing someone to engage with the audience.

What’s in a like?

If the Tories measure bang for buck in the number of likes their page attracts, they might think that the money is being well spent. They certainly lead the pack in this respect, with nearly 350,000 likes for the main page. However, the Tories are closely followed by UKIP, even though the newcomers invest a fraction of the Conservative budget in Facebook.

That said, it must be noted that this comparison does not take into account the Facebook advertising for individual party leaders and party representatives, who might also be benefiting from the Facebook advertising budget. We are comparing a party with 303 MPs with a party with 2 MPs.

Main political parties Facebook page likes comparison 5th February 2015. Author Provided

Political parties obsess over headline social media figures like these but the main aim of social media is not just to have a lot of fans. Engaging with users is essential too, so tactics like buying fake twitter followers won’t get you anywhere unless people are commenting – and that also applies to Facebook.

In this respect, when you compare the Conservatives and UKIP over the past seven days, UKIP leads with 24 posts and an average of 3,000 likes per post. Although the number of comments tends to be higher on individual Conservative posts, as a whole, the number is insignificant, considering the number of posts created by UKIP.

This suggest that UKIP’s Facebook strategy is to focus on the quantity of messages. UKIP tends to use pictures instead of the elaborate animations preferred by the Conservatives. Despite their simplicity in production, the pictures used by UKIP strike a chord with their activists – resulting in the high numbers of likes.

For all this, the most important mark of social success is the number of shares you get. And this is where the Conservatives really fall down. Over the past week, their content has been shared 6620 times whereas as UKIP content has been shared a whopping 12293 times. So, assuming that the party did spend its £100,000 this month, it hasn’t really been cost effective.

One week on Facebook Conservative vs UKIP - Facebook posts likes, comments and shares. Author provided

The engagement levels for both UKIP and the Conservatives are much higher when compared to a political Facebook page that has twice as many likes – that of new right-wing party Britain First. This group has caused alarm by attracting more than 600,000 likes on Facebook but doesn’t seem to be matching those likes with engagement.

Importing success

If the 2012 US presidential election is anything to go by, Facebook can be an indicator of political popularity. There was even a tongue-in-cheek website showing how quickly losing the presidential election campaign translated into a loss of Facebook friends for Mitt Romney .

Obama’s campaign made successful use of memes or parodies to spread messages. For example, blunders made by the opposition can quickly be exploited, as was the case with Romney’s unfortunate comment about his binders full of women.

I have binders full of women.

Gaffes like these are quickly picked up and spread across social networks to ridicule the opposition and undermine their credibility. The “binders full of women” US example is comparable to the “Bill Somebody” that emerged in the recent UK campaigns. Although it is early days, the current campaign doesn’t seem as witty or sharp - are the Conservatives being too conservative?

Is it worth it?

Parties across the political spectrum need to strike the right balance on social media campaigning. Amplifying a message is a good idea but only when the message is viral in its natural form. Social media objectives must also consider the negative impact that paid advertising can cause. Just as likes are gained, they can be lost as a result of an aggressive and irrelevant content amplification.

Statistics from 2014 show Facebook is still the dominant social media network in the UK. But, other networks are on the rise – and this is where the main parties vary in their digital strategies.

YouTube, for example, is integrated to best effect in the digital campaign of the Conservative party. The party has viewer figures in the thousands on what is increasingly credited as the second largest search engine in the UK after Google. Despite that, the content is not very “social” since all comments on the videos are blocked.

As the May election nears, British political parties are proving keen to emulate the successful use of social media in the US to win support. And indeed, the American precedent suggests that larger budgets tend to win more votes. But whether running a good political advertising campaign is a good predictor of performance in running a country is not quite as clear.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

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