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Politics

Why The Online Election Was Fought On Email, Not Twitter

Campaigners at the major political parties say that unfashionable email campaigns allowed them to reach far more voters than Twitter.

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During the 2010 general election the Conservatives were praised for their impressive and innovative online campaign tactics. They offered daily video campaign updates on the Conservative leader via the WebCameron service, beat Labour in terms of rapid rebuttal on Twitter, and even crowdsourced a policy document via a free-for-all collective editing process. Journalists fawned over their innovative campaign tactics.

The problem was, people involved at the time remarked, it didn't win them many votes.

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Since then, UK politics has developed a strange and not entirely committed relationship with the internet, with news cycles driven by Twitter outrage while the focus of press officers remains overwhelmingly on getting the right stories placed in the right newspapers. There's repeated talk of a "social media election" bringing new levels of "engagement", but this often goes little beyond sticking some press releases on Twitter and hoping it will miraculously bring 18-year-olds flooding to the polls.

With that in mind, BuzzFeed News talked to the people involved in the campaign at every level from national party HQs to local constituencies to discover how they were actually using the internet. Most were unwilling to be quoted this side of the election but – despite different opinions – several common themes were mentioned time and time again about the reality of what a "social media election" campaign actually means.

Twitter was seen as important for journalists but not for winning over swing voters.

One thing brought up time and time again by party campaigners – whose job is getting people to vote rather than winning the national media war – was a certain despair about most politicians' obsession with Twitter, which some believe encourages endless back-and-forth arguments with a small number of users about detailed policy debates rather than doing anything to win floating voters.

It's revolutionised political journalism and sped up the news cycle ("We used to have to wait until the six o'clock news came on for the line to be moved on, now it's over within hours," says one slightly exhausted press officer), but its ability to win over voters in crucial seats is perceived as relatively limited. (Twitter has issued its own research claiming the opposite.) One criticism raised by some was that Twitter's location-based ad targeting was not precise enough to ensure targeted ads were always reaching voters in the correct constituencies.

Still, there were three strong points in Twitter's favour cited by campaigners: First, party activists, who vote for a party regardless, can be fired up on Twitter and encouraged to spread a core message. Second, hashtag movements and ideas that begin on Twitter (such as the #Milifandom and mocking of the #EdStone) can sometimes get a mass audience and focus the press. Third, it can develop its own online ecosystem, as in Scotland, where the first minister has a habit of personally talking to journalists about their toilet habits.

Facebook was perceived as one of the best ways to reach swing voters who rarely engage with politics.

Facebook

When the Conservatives invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in buying likes for their Facebook pages, they were mocked by political journalists. But most parties were of the opinion that this is the one place where real people with a minimal interest in politics can be targeted.

Labour is proud that its following was built more organically, but in recent weeks politicians from all the major parties have been spotted buying targeted Facebook adverts, enabling them to spend money on reaching specific groups of people in closely targeted seats.

The Lib Dems poured their efforts into a database that matches up voters' responses on the doorstep to their private Facebook accounts, enabling ultra-targeted adverts to run in the final days of the campaign.

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Paid-for YouTube attack ads have become a thing.

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As first revealed by BuzzFeed News, the Conservatives began paying for targeted "pre-roll" adverts to roll in selected marginal seats. They were the only ones who could afford this, and it's hard to judge how much of a success it's been until after the election.

Traditional five-minute party political broadcasts produced for TV tended to bomb on YouTube, with a few honourable exceptions such as Labour's Martin Freeman endorsement and the Greens' bizarre broadcast.

However, YouTube lost some ground to Facebook Video, which enabled parties to put footage directly in front of millions of people – with broadcasts regularly being viewed by more people on Facebook than on YouTube.

But the parties agreed that the real online campaign tool that mattered was a deeply unfashionable one: email.

Email

"Email is the most important thing that we do, whether that's mobilising people or getting the message across," said one Labour insider whose view was backed up by everyone from the Lib Dems to UKIP.

Your personal email inbox is boring, unsexy, and largely reserved for Amazon receipts and bills. But getting hold of email addresses was the No. 1 obsession for political parties during this campaign, since it gave them direct access at almost no cost to hundreds of thousands of people. Once they have your email address, they can combine it with information on your name and postcode to build up a profile that allows them to send you messages relevant to your area.

Emails were harvested in innovative ways. Labour released a series of incredibly viral but largely politics-free Facebook apps, including one enabling people to to find how many people have the same name as them. The app required you to hand over your name, email address, and postcode – and 724,000 people did just that in the first week it was live, giving Labour a massive contact database for free. The Conservatives, meanwhile, claim to have 1.3 million emails on their central database, "collected using online petitions, surveys, and interactive sites like online tax calculators".

It's then targeted. Only open 1 email in 10? The parties can track that and adjust their message to you accordingly. Open every email? Then they'll mark you down as an engaged activist who should receive a different message encouraging you to go on the doorstep.

Labour sold tea towels and raised millions through small donations, while the Conservative focused on driving home their core message into inboxes again and again.

And that's how the parties viewed their social media campaigns.

What worked in reality will become clear over the coming weeks.

Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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