3 December 2019

The Tories are spending much less than Labour online – for a good reason

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The big loser in this election campaign so far is not any party but television broadcasting.

Presented with an opportunity to inform us about some of the policy differences between Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, the TV producers have made a mess of it.

The leadership ‘debate’ hosted by ITV managed to prevent the two candidates vying to be Prime Minister from developing much of an argument.  The one-on-one question and answer sessions hosted by the BBC have been so dominated by the ‘gotcha’ impulses of the presenters that we learned little about what Corbyn (cross-examined by Andrew Neil) or Boris (hectored by Andrew Marr) actually thought.

In a sense though, this doesn’t matter.  The 2019 election campaign is being fought largely online.

If you think of this election campaign in terms of which interviewer said what to which candidate, you are probably over forty.  Millions of voters – especially younger ones – no longer follow current affairs through TV news bulletins or broadcasts.  They see the world in terms of what they watch online.

While television broadcasting flounders, online advertising has really come in to its own in this election.  So much so that the most important people in the party campaign ‘war rooms’ are no longer the press officers and their news grid, but the tech chaps and their targeting.

According to Whotargets.me, the parties are pouring money into online outreach.  Labour is currently racking up over £30,000 of spending a day on Facebook.  The Lib Dems are not far behind, spending over £20,000 daily.

What is interesting at this juncture of the campaign, with just over a week to go, is that the Conservatives, despite trebling their online spend in the past few days, are still only racking up a daily spend of about £10,000.

Should this surprise us?  Not really.

One of the reasons why Vote Leave was so successful during the referendum campaign was that they ignored the charlatan advice that proliferates across the ad industry.  In fact, we didn’t hire an ad agency at all, but tested the effectiveness of the ads that we ran ourselves.

Today, according to Whotargets.me, while the Conservatives are not yet spending big sums, they are running a myriad of ads – over a thousand versions on some days.  Someone somewhere in CCHQ is working out what works.

Once they have done so, I suspect that there will be a massive push, targeting the right voters, with the right message and, crucially, at the right time.

If our understanding of the efficacy of advertising is seldom backed by anything resembling science, one thing we do know about ads is that the impact of exposure to an ad diminishes rapidly over time. In other words, it is best to target voters with push messages as close to election day as possible.

Which is why Vote Leave – again contrary to so much expert opinion – kept back the lion’s share of its ad spend until shortly before election day.  I suspect that we will see something similar in this election.

Tory online ad spend will surge, with micro messages delivered to those that the Tories need onboard to win.

Labour, it is often said, is much better at producing online content that goes viral.  There is, perhaps, some truth in this.  But don’t let this mislead you.

Producing a video that is shared widely online because it appeals to your committed supporters might give your campaign the illusion of success.   But it’s how you reach those uncommitted voters, who are not politically engaged enough to share the latest Twitter meme, but might just be nudged into going out and voting, that matters.

Will we wake up on Friday December 13th to a Conservative majority or a hung Parliament?  I doubt its anything that happens on television that will decide that.  What the Tory party does online in the next ten days will.  We are about to find out if all that micro-testing actually works.  I suspect it will – not that the people who report the results on the TV channels will even be aware of it.

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Douglas Carswell was an MP and co-founded Vote Leave. He runs the Centre for Economic Education