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The 2010 General Election was the first to be dubbed ‘The Social Media Election’, fuelled in part by Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaign two years earlier in which he mobilised hundreds of thousands of voters on social media, but the reality was somewhat different.

Even though more than 600 politicians took to Twitter, political observers noted that election campaigning once again relied heavily on traditional media with social media used to support the messaging.

And just last year, the Scottish Independence Referendum was hailed as a big step forward for social media in politics. It was mentioned more than 8.8 million times on Twitter, and three quarters of these were accompanied by the promoted #IndyRef hashtag. But the final results told a different story.

Even though Alex Salmond, leader of the campaign for independence, had almost seven times more followers than his Better Together counterpart Alastair Darling, and tweeted with more frequency, he failed to convince the majority.

The role of social media in politics, it seems, has yet to be fully understood. But with the General Election coming up in May and two thirds of MPs on Twitter, it is likely that social media activity will heat up.

‘We’ll see more caution, less engagement but ultimately more activity,’ says Natalia Marczewska, digital executive at PLMR.

The leaders of the major parties certainly seem to take social media more seriously. Both the Conservative and Labour parties have hired members of the teams behind Obama’s winning election strategies. Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, has been hired as an adviser for David Cameron, whilst Blue State Digital, the leading digital strategy agency that saw Obama through both 2008 and 2012, has been imported to help Labour.

But Obama’s tools were not necessarily as advanced as people might think in the social media age. ‘A lot of it was simple email,’ says Mike Ramsden, head of broadcast at PLMR. ‘It’s still a very powerful tool.’

Gregor Poynton, associate director of digital at Portland Communications and former member of the Blue State Digital team, agrees: ‘For political parties, email still drives the most amount of action for them. So you have a database of members and supporters, and you ask them to do something for you, be it a small donation, be it Share content on social media, be it Switch off your computer or laptop and actually go off and deliver some leaflets and do some traditional campaigning on the ground.

‘Email is not seen as quite as sexy, and it’s obviously under-the-hood because particularly, the media can’t see what’s happening, but actually a lot of time and effort goes into segmentation, building a database and getting the email communication right.

‘There are different tools for different purposes. When you look at digital communications in the round, it’s about how you work with the right tool set for the challenge at hand. I think the party that can crack that are the ones that are likely to do best with their digital communications this year.’

Those who triumph on social media might also find themselves in favour in the traditional press. ‘Data from social media is helping to shape online communication strategies but also party policies as politicians increasingly adjust their views to popular sentiments which are promoted on social media. We will see more news stories stemming from social media announcements as well as scandals,’ says Kevin Craig, managing director at PLMR. ‘Big announcements are now just as likely to be first declared on social media, followed by traditional press. There are plenty of examples of news stories written around a single tweet.’

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake also acknowledges that social media is a useful way of getting the attention of the press. ‘We see social media as a means for Liberal Democrats to get round the mainstream press – particularly the print press – who won’t give us the time of day. If we can use social media, Huffington Post or anything else to get our message across, we will do that.

‘More people, particularly young people, are getting their news through social media as opposed to newspapers. It’s to our advantage to use that as a means of getting out our message.’

However, even as its ability to influence the media increases, the impact of social media is not necessarily easy to read. ‘You can cheat a lot of social media metrics really,’ says Marczewska. She points out that UKIP supporters, for example, have a tendency to create multiple accounts on Twitter for the sole purpose of making their cause trend in the UK.

‘It’s not just about how many people something has reached, it’s about quality of reach,’ says Ed McRandal, consultant at Insight Public Affairs. ‘It’s no good if David Cameron tweets something and it’s engaged with thousands of times but it’s just negative comment after negative comment. It’s about assessing whether the positives [of using a platform] outweigh the negatives.’

But despite social media’s capacity for misleading parties about their success on Twitter, Craig remains positive about social media’s role in this election. ‘Social media support does not automatically translate to an election vote and is notoriously difficult to poll but it does help to shape debates as often controversial tweets end up being covered by mainstream media,’ he says.

And whilst grassroots campaigning and door-to-canvassing may be here to stay for a little while longer, social media is still a vital tool for politicians, one that is best integrated than left alone.

‘It’s not the magic solution,’ reminds Mark Pack, associate director at Blue Rubicon. ‘It’s like saying you’re not going to use the phone – you could get by but you are hobbling yourself.

‘Even with turnout starting to rise again at general elections, more British voters will be using social networks in May than fill in a ballot paper. With social networking more popular than voting, it’ll be essential for political parties to fully integrate digital into their campaigning, and they can learn from the successful digital integration carried out already by many brands.’

But while social media will undoubtedly play a vital role, most political observers believe that it will not make or break the outcome of the election. ‘Barack Obama won because he’s Barack Obama,’ says Poynton.

‘If John McCain had done exactly the same techniques as Obama, he wouldn’t be president,’ agrees Mark Flanagan, senior partner at Portland Communications. ‘We do obsess totally about the tools, about the platforms and the channels and ultimately it’s about the message and the messenger.’

McRandal, too, is particularly keen to make sure no one is left under any illusions about the power of social media in the election. ‘Anyone who thinks this will be ‘The Social Media Election’ is wrong.’

UKIP TO DOMINATE SOCIAL

The UK Independence Party looks set to be the breakout star of the 2015 election, according to research from social media agency, We Are Social.

The study, conducted over three months until January, reveals that UKIP hold nearly one third of the conversations on Twitter, followed closely by Labour with a 29 per cent share. The Conservatives and Scottish National Party close the top four, but the Liberal Democrats are left trailing behind with the still-growing Green Party.

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage himself holds a quarter of the voice on social media, second only to the Prime Minister.

But the fastest growing community on Twitter is the Green Party, which grew 14 per cent over the period, ten percentage points more than the three main political parties. It now has more than 103,000 followers, eclipsing the 79,000 or so who follow both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.

However, UKIP is the fastest growing political community on Facebook. Over the three month period, its Facebook community grew eight per cent to more than 330,000 ‘Likes’.

‘At the moment, on social media, it’s the challenger parties that seems to be making a play for the potential voters on social with The Green Party and UKIP performing well, albeit, often from a smaller base making percentage growth easier,’ says Paul Greenwood, senior research and insight director at We Are Social.

‘When looking at the main political parties it’s a draw between The Conservatives and Labour – one outperforming the other on Facebook and Twitter respectively. Overall, The Lib Dems appear to be out of the social media race and the SNP is an unknown. So very much like the election in general, the social media performance of the parties make it difficult to pick a winner with any degree of certainty.’