The political parties invested significant campaign resources in social media, ahead of the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. Simply having an online presence is no panacea to engaging potential voters. As in the corporate sector, it must be integrated into a communications strategy.
Indeed, most members of Ipsos MORI’s Reputation Council, comprising senior blue-chip company communications directors, said they formally review social media discussions on a daily basis, while the majority have incorporated it into their reputation management processes.
We used social listening techniques to explore online discussions surrounding the four main parties in the Scottish Parliament election campaign. Our analysis reveals the SNP had the largest online presence in the final month of campaigning, receiving considerably more mentions than any other party. As the incumbent, this is attributed to rivals challenging their record and also suggests there was more online ‘buzz’ around the party.
As the campaign progressed, peaks in online activity generally coincided with key events, such as manifesto launches and TV debates. The largest spike in activity occurred on the day News International’s main titles decided to back the SNP indicating online activity is still influenced to some extent by traditional media, unsurprising given the campaign’s high profile.
It is, however, the analysis of activity on non-news sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, which is vital to understanding online users’ perceptions. The SNP received the most mentions on non-news sites at the beginning of April, with the gap between them and Labour narrowing as the election approached and users began directly comparing both parties.
The largest spike in mentions on non-news sites surrounded the launch of the SNP manifesto, where a high proportion of mentions contained reference to its key pledges, particularly the Council Tax freeze. Labour’s commitment to ‘end jobless youth’ and the Conservatives’ ‘common sense’ pledges, were also shared by users in significant numbers. Creating content which can easily be shared is an effective method for encouraging the spread of key messages it seems.
We also categorised mentions on Twitter and Facebook as positive, negative or neutral. Almost half of SNP mentions were positive, compared to just 16% of Labour mentions. Indeed, almost half of Labour’s mentions were negative.
The SNP’s positive mentions tended to express satisfaction with their manifesto pledges, record in government and Alex Salmond’s leadership. In contrast, negative mentions of Labour tended to criticise their perceived lack of original policies and Iain Gray’s leadership.
The contrast between the Liberal Democrats’ poor showing at the election and their relatively high proportion of positive mentions is interesting. Analysis suggests this was down to the party being largely ignored in discussions on Twitter and Facebook - the SNP and Labour both received five times as many mentions. Seemingly, discussions were largely generated by the party itself or its supporters, who are likely to express more positive opinions.
Social media has become a news story for very different reasons following the violent looting in English cities. It will, however, remain important to politicians and communication professionals long after the riots disappear from the headlines.