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2016 is a year of big decisions, in the UK we face the EU referendum and in the US there is the Presidential election. With each of these events reaching their conclusion soon, I have noticed that social media is playing an increasingly important role in these decisions.

Today it is easy to forget that social media hasn’t always been around, after all, in 2007 when President Obama first announced his candidacy, Twitter had only been launched the year before.

In 2012, five years on, the media landscape looked very different. With an ever increasing number of social media platforms, tools and growing user bases, capitalizing on these platforms had become very important.

Obama’s campaign dominated social media, compared to the Republican’s candidate Mitt Romney, whose social media campaign never gained the traction Obama’s did. A comparison of the digital campaign spending shows that Obama spent $47 million (£33 million) whilst Romney spent $4.7 million (£3.3 million), which translated into Obama logging twice as many Facebook ‘likes’ and nearly 20 times as many retweets as Romney.

In 2016 in the run-up to the US election, you can see the importance of using social media to engage with an audience who are still unsure who to vote for, if anybody at all. The Democrat nominee Bernie Sanders and the Republican nominee Donald Trump have both utilized social media well, regularly tweeting and using social media trends to attract the most attention to their campaign. For example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign has used the hashtag #FeelTheBern and Donald Trump tweets comebacks to his opponents on social media to gain media coverage and the attention of their online communities.

In 2015, the UK General Election illustrated that having a digital profile can significantly impact your reach to certain demographics. An example from the UK election is the Conservative Party, who spent over £100,000 a month on Facebook advertising alone. In 2010, it was mostly a younger audience who used Facebook, but by 2015 the parents of those young people had joined Facebook. This is why the Conservative party saw this platform as a way of reaching over half the population. It also highlights the importance of getting the right content in front of the right people at the right time. This strategy wouldn’t have worked in 2010 because their voting audience weren’t as prevalent on social media.

Craig Elder, the Conservative Party’s Digital Director for their campaign in 2015, noted that, “It’s much better to reach five people with the right message than 500 with the wrong one”. With statistics regarding retweets and reach of posts being crucial to election campaigns, Elder was concerned with the quality of the engagement and not the quantity

One of the most effective channels during the 2015 election was the use of online video. The Conservative Party created videos that linked Labour leader Ed Miliband with the former SNP leader Alex Salmond. In comparison the Labour party asked Martin Freeman to feature in a promotional video which explained to viewers the choice that they faced. Both of these videos received a high level of social media engagement and could have swung voters either way.

The Conservative Party:

The Labour Party:

The 2015 UK election ultimately came down to an audience of roughly 100,000 people who would vote in the most decisive constituencies and the Conservative Party used social media as a tool to effectively target those people.

Consequently, the use of social media has impacted greatly on how political parties can dominate an election and even though there is still a stark contrast between campaigns in the US and the UK, important points can be taken from both. Engaging users with content is key and a fundamental must for digital campaigns, but targeting the right people with targeted quality content is even more important.

There is no point spending millions on preaching to the converted, instead politicians are realizing that they need to target those on social media that have not yet made their decision.

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