Social media: Election result shows missed opportunity for main parties

One-way broadcast approach betrayed key point to facilitate engagement, writes David Cochrane

This election is set to take off like an X Factor final with every bum note vined, tweeted and down voted until the next misstep shimmers into the spotlight. But do any of these thumbs up matter?

In the run in to each election there is always a discussion as to whether it will be the long awaited campaign that is dominated by social media. This campaign did see a greater engagement on social media - from politicians and the electorate alike.

However, the results show that the main parties, in particular, missed an opportunity to both promote their message online and to tailor their campaigns to address the issues that people were engaging with.

The rise of social media in Ireland has been staggering. Ipsos MRBI, which has been tracking the growth of the networks, last month reported 63 per cent of the adult population (or 2.5 million people) actively using Facebook, with three quarters of them using it daily. Twitter's growth has been on the rise too, with 31 per cent of the population actively using the network.

Since rumour of an election being called in November, Facebook recorded 6.8 million interactions (a like, share or comment on an election-related issue). During the three-week election campaign itself there were 3.8 million interactions.


Lessons from the the Tories

The use of Facebook has been widely cited as crucial to the Tories’ success in last year’s UK general election, where they were able to target voters in marginal parliamentary constituencies on the social network.

Clear messages to supporters and targeted swing voters, with clear calls to action resulted in communications which were hugely engaging and ultimately effective as demonstrated in the election result. Edmonds Elder, the social media team behind the Tories' victory was used by Fine Gael for their own campaign. However as demonstrated from the overall campaign, it was never going to be a simple case of copying a campaign, either offline or online.

The Irish campaign

It can be argued that the major issue facing the political parties was the effectiveness of the messages utilised on social media - tending to focus more on promoting individual candidates to social media users in local areas along with broad national messages in line with their campaign messages.

A one-way broadcast approach by main political parties to the campaign seemed to betray the key point of the social media networks, to facilitate engagement between their users. Both Facebook and Twitter, who proactively worked during the campaign to promote best-in-class use of social media, repeatedly highlighted how more authentic and personal communications resulted in better engagement by voters. However, the use of social media, as part of the main parties' campaign plans, broadly reflected the broadcast nature of political campaigns in a way that was unlikely to engage the voters directly.

The issues on social

That’s not to say that voters were not engaged. What is clear is that voters using social media engaged more on a wider range of issues than the parties did. The economy, the biggest election issue, was also the most-discussed topic on social media during the election campaign.

However other issues dominated discussion that seemed to go ignored by the political parties on the networks. Health, the second most discussed topic during the campaign, was in fact the most discussed topic before the campaign began, and second during the campaign. Other issues which dominated social media discussion included infrastructure, crime and corruption, social welfare, housing and abortion. It’s difficult to find evidence of these issues being utilised by the main parties on social media.

The smaller parties

Excluded from the major TV debates and coverage, smaller parties were able to benefit from social media and take advantage of the more-levelled playing field nature of the network. The Social Democrats, whilst unsuccessful in increasing their representation, can be in particular highlighted for the means by which they used social media.

Candidates who shared personal experiences and connected directly with voters on social media found their exposure and reach amplified beyond what they could have achieved from traditional canvassing and campaigning.

Facebook has described the level of engagement by social media use around the election as “staggering”. The main political parties will be wondering how they could have better used the social media networks to connect with voters on their terms, rather than the parties.