EU referendum is biggest missed opportunity in political marketing for a generation

With the Brexit vote in the balance, Rupert Staines, RadiumOne's European managing director questions the madness of why neither camp in the EU membership debate has harnessed online sharing behaviour to potentially reach millions of undecided voters.

EU referendum is biggest missed opportunity in political marketing for a generation

With three days to go to the biggest political vote in a generation the polls are closer than anyone expected. A recent survey the Marketing Society conducted with RadiumOne showed that 80% of marketers are firmly in the "remain" camp yet it’s a completely different story among the general electorate – the latest polls suggest "Leave" has edged back into the lead over "Remain" but it’s pretty much neck-and-neck.

Both sides have campaigned furiously (some might say disgracefully) and deployed a smorgasbord of PR and media communications tactics to get their respective messages across. From feisty TV debates to the old-fashioned poster, from radio phone-ins to high impact newspaper ads to social media tactics across Facebook and Twitter, the battle to win has been intense.

In addition, the celebrity "don't fuck with my future" campaign recently launched to encourage voters to turnout. However, I simply can’t understand why both camps have failed to properly harness the large amounts of online content sharing around this hugely emotive election to potentially reach millions of undecided voters through clever, more relevant digital advertising by focusing on real user behaviour rather than a standard, 'push' media approach.

Fix your "digital plumbing"

The ultimate goal of any marketer, especially a political one in this situation, is to ensure you ’see' the most comprehensive view of today’s increasingly connected voter - on or offline, north or south, male or female, desktop or smartphone. This requires getting your 'digital plumbing’ properly in place so there are no blind spots.

This starts with the simple step of integrating the right content-sharing tools (e.g.: like and across your owned (website) and earned (social) channels. Content sharing tools offer three important advantages for the political marketer:

1. Help 'lock down' online audience

Sharing tools help you 'lock down' people sharing and engaging with content across your website and social channels so only you can harness it for online advertising. Too many brands integrate sharing tools across these channels whose business model, effectively, is to take it and sell it on the open exchanges – thus you’re ‘leaking’ data. Why give the opposition that opportunity at any time, let alone for a once-in-a-lifetime vote like this, to buy into your potential audiences?!

2. Provide deeper, real-time audience understanding

Surely a better understanding of who exactly is engaging with and sharing your content during a political campaign of such magnitude is a huge advantage, especially if you’re prepared to act on it in real-time? Sharing tools can give party analysts enormously powerful and real-time online voter insights. They don’t just provide standard demographics and geography but also time of day trends, content type, channel-type breakdown including Dark Social, device usage behaviour, sector overlap trends and much much more.

For example, if you happened to know from your online sharing report that 80% of your audience was only engaging and sharing your content via smartphones, you’d be able to quickly amend your campaign plan to ensure your creative messaging was fully optimised and relevant for mobile channels. On such a war footing this level of real-time insight into your engaged, ‘hand-raiser’ audience is marketing gold dust for those prepared to exploit it.

3. Harness Dark Social channels

Harnessing and understanding 'Dark Social' is growing, and yet, it’s still widely underexploited and misunderstood by marketers and their agencies. It simply refers to online content shared in a way that is ‘untraceable’ by standard online analytics tools like Google Analytics. It includes content links within emails, instant messenger or chat apps and forums, as opposed to more public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It is one of the biggest blind spots in marketing today.

Prior to the 2015 General Election, our analysis revealed that 68% of political content from 500,000 links was via Dark Social – versus just 22% on Facebook and 10% on Twitter. In the last 30 days alone we’ve seen Dark Social sharing around EU Vote content hit 78%, with Facebook languishing at 10% and Twitter at 8%.

Ignore the dark and be left in the cold

Given the emotive nature of this vote, ‘Dark Social' sharing offers political marketers a huge additional pool of voters to target if they can harness it properly through the right advertising message. Surely, 78% extra voters to target is a ‘like' and not a ‘fail’?

Political parties are pretty unsophisticated in digital and have been too pre-occupied with Facebook and Twitter and have simply failed to understand consumer behaviour today. This ‘blanket’ social approach is relatively ineffective compared to Dark Social’s power in harnessing shared content to drum up voter support. Dark Social content carries far more emotional weight as it’s normally done on a 1-2-1, implicit, basis with family or close friends which is why it’s so surprising more hasn’t been made of it by either side given the vote’s huge significance.

The truism that it's rude to discuss politics in public clearly holds true for UK voters – as the figures above demonstrate. In a vote as close as this is predicted to be, you’d expect both campaigns to be trying to unlock the maximum value from their communications channels, especially in online. Sadly, they haven’t and one side will surely regret their lack of connected, data-driven digital planning come this Thursday.