Zoe Amar: What charities can learn from the digital election

Whatever your opinion of the result, last week's election gave us useful lessons on the deployment of online content

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

The digital landscape was a major battleground in last week’s election. All the major parties invested in Facebook advertising, video and online campaigns, and social media content became a talking point, with Johnson’s "tea break" video gaining 5.7 million views.

What can we learn from this? And what does it mean for the campaigns charities run?

The one thing I’ll remember about the Tories’ election campaign was that digital was high on the agenda. Sitting alongside campaign mastermind Isaac Levido in the "pod of power" at the centre of the election war room were digital strategists Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, two young New Zealanders who had previously delivered election success for Scott Morrison in Australia. They pioneered a new approach in which volume, variety and speed were key, and where content went out if it was 80 per cent right. The campaign wasn’t without controversy though, such as the "@factcheckuk" stunt.

Although charities need to operate to high ethical standards, there is a lesson here: if your charity wants to achieve its goals, digital needs to sit up front with leadership and have the status of a co-pilot. Too often digital teams are still seen as cabin crew.

Another key point is consistency: relentless messaging wins. Repeating key messages is not new for political campaigns, but it is even more important amid the noise of social media. Drew Lindon, a charity policy and campaigns consultant, points out that the Tories’ "get Brexit done" was snappier than Labour’s "it’s time for real change".

Charities need evocative, punchy and tangible messaging for their campaigns because these will work well on and offline. Lindon says: "Shorter messages are easier to share across a range of social media channels, and emotive ones are more likely to be memorable and shared."

Video is vital. All the parties invested in video, from Corbyn responding to "mean tweets" about himself (3.4 million views) to Johnson’s Love Actually pastiche (five million views and counting). These helped to create watercooler moments that got people talking. It was an essential medium for capturing attention and winning what Tory digital strategist Guerin called "the battle of the thumbs". Next time your charity plans a big digital campaign, its flagship content must involve video.

And although numbers are important, they are not the only solution: unseen conversations have value. As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says, private groups are growing in importance online. There was a huge amount of conversation about the election in closed groups that I’m part of on Facebook, including communities for people in my area of Hertfordshire as well as UK-wide parenting groups.

Frustratingly, there will be people talking about your charity in closed groups too, and there is a limited amount you can do to influence this. However, Richard Forshaw-Smith, managing partner at RFS Marketing, says: "The creation of shareable content by political parties (and groups supporting them) was important, as it allowed individuals to express their opinions by using that content within these groups."

Consider how your charity can create content that helps supporters share positive messages with their networks.

Finally, timing is key. Labour and the Liberal Democrats invested significantly more than the Tories in Facebook adverts, indicating that a bigger budget is not a magic bullet. When you invest in digital it must be aligned with when you want people to make a decision. Anj Handa, founder of the social change movement Inspiring Women Changemakers and a charity chair, says: "Charities would benefit from understanding the importance of campaign lifecycles, knowing that pre-launch and first and last weeks tend to be the most crucial in terms of getting stakeholders to pay attention and take action."

There are plenty of ideas charities can repurpose from the digital election. What will you do next?

Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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