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As the dust settles on the longest Federal election campaign in living memory, the unexpectedly close result that defied most analyst and pundit predictions has naturally brought about a round of reflection and examination on the two major parties’ election campaigns. 

Much has already been made of Labor’s dishonest but effective ‘Medi-scare’ campaign, as well as the Coalition’s flat and uninspiring ‘jobs and growth’ mantra that even Coalition MPs struggled to sell. Less analysis however has been done on the tactical level of the major parties’ campaign. In particular, the parties’ use of social media as a strategic campaign tool has only warranted cursory examinations in the media thus far.

Moreover, when we do hear about the role social media plays in modern campaigning, the examination is largely limited to a superficial analysis of the increasing quantity, although not necessarily quality (think #faketradie), of political marketing content shared across the mainstream social media platforms. The often overlooked but just as vital utilisation of social media in the election campaign came in the form of invaluable voter insights gained through social media analytics and the way they were used to shape, fine-tune and focus more traditional methods of campaigning. It was through this utilisation of data from social media that enabled election strategists to run effective and in some cases ruthless campaigns that delivered not only votes but also crucial seats for their respective parties.

From Labor’s army of volunteers armed with the social media sourced demographic details of voters in marginal electorates, to progressive activist group GetUp!’s sophisticated micro-targeting strategy and even the Liberal party’s canny use of Chinese social media platform WeChat in the ethnically diverse Victorian seat of Chisholm, social media was harnessed in new and innovative ways that went beyond the distribution of political marketing content and that produced decisive and discernible results at the ballot box.

While the federal election of 2016 has been labelled by some commentators  as the ‘social media election’, it is clear that the plethora of Twitter hashtags, Facebook mentions and Snapchat filters that we were subjected to don’t tell the whole story.

Yes, social media is more important than ever
Since the ‘Kevin 07’ election nine years ago in which social media made its debut as campaign tool, the role of social media in election campaigns has become increasingly integral to the strategies of the major political parties. As telecommunications technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and society more reliant on smartphones and social networks for everyday activities, it was inevitable that social media would play an even more instrumental role than in elections past.

As we saw at the election, social media platforms served as a key battleground of discussion and debate in the 55-day campaign. Tweets, tags and shares of party-political content were at the highest level ever, as users turned to social media platforms to engage with parties, sitting parliamentarians and prospective candidates. According to Facebook, which is still the most popular social media platform overall, over 3.6 million people engaged in 30 million election related interactions. 

There are numerous reasons why political campaigns of all stripes have embraced social media. Social media gives a cash-strapped candidate and campaign manager a cheap and effective tool to engage with the electorate. It also provides an opportunity for campaign strategists to craft and direct content to voters without having to get their message through the traditional media gatekeepers of reporters and journalists. 

However, the central reason why campaigns on all sides of politics utilise social media channels to deliver political content lies in the breadth of its reach. As the public increasingly get their news from Facebook and Twitter, social media now has an increasingly broader reach vis-à-vis traditional media.

This trend becomes more and more evident when considering younger voters. As research published this year by the Reuters Institute for Journalism Research found 38 per cent of 18-24 year olds named social media as their primary news source, ahead of TV at 24 per cent. 

Content isn’t always king
While all serious campaigns and candidates now focus a sizeable proportion of their campaign resources on developing and spreading content across social media, relying on online engagement alone to win votes would not only be reckless but extremely ineffectual. Malcolm Turnbull’s Facebook page may have twice the amount of likes (308,000) than Bill Shorten’s (150,000) but it is goes without saying that this advantage did not replicate itself at the ballot box. 

Similarly, while the distribution of political content through social media channels may register many online engagements, Facebook shares and Twitter retweets cannot replace a fully-fledged ground campaign in reaching and persuading voters. Social media channels may be cheap, direct and ubiquitous but by their very nature lack the personal level engagement that can often influence how someone votes.

As Victorian ALP Assistant State Secretary Stephen Donnelly told ABC’s 730 in the lead up to the election, “there is no more effective conversation or interaction with a voter than actually speaking with them.” This sentiment was also shared by the national director of progressive activist organisation GetUp! Paul Oosting (left) who also emphasised the importance of direct dialogue and conversations with voters when trying to persuade them in an election campaign.

While political parties would ignore social media at their peril, depending on these channels alone as a medium of political content distribution and voter persuasion would be to overstate their significance against traditional methods of campaigning that focus on human interaction and direct dialogue.

Harnessing big data
As former Prime Minister John Howard famously remarked; politics is ‘driven by the laws of arithmetic’, and while the social media content of the major parties recorded record levels of engagement, these figures count for little when there are only one or two marginal seats separating government from opposition. The stark reality is that the only arithmetic that counts in elections is the sum of members each party ends up with in parliament.

Much like the American concept of ‘swing states’ that decide presidential elections, Australian elections are generally determined by the government’s ability to hold its marginal seats. Consequently, the real utility of social media to campaign strategists during the election were in the insights into voter concerns as well as voter demographics that social media analytics provided in these crucial seats. 

While there must first be a significant amount of activity on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter before meaningful analyses can be developed by campaign strategists, the simple analysis of likes, shares or retweets was of much less use to strategists than the demographic data in the analytics and insights in the online engagement, now available from both Facebook and Twitter.  

Rather than being simply a channel to distribute political advertising, social media and the analytics that they provided gave campaign strategists and crucially, local campaign managers the opportunity to effectively focus and allocate their often scarce campaign resources. Social media analytics added a layer to their existing databases of ABS Census and AEC data as well gave them immediate feedback into the themes that did and did not resonate with voters. By harnessing this invaluable information source, campaign strategists were able to micro-target the seats and even specific polling booths where they would be most effective. 

The analytics then allowed campaign workers to have more face-to-face conversations, target those conversations to local communities and communities of interest as well as inform the substance and subject of those conversations. In this sense, it is clear that the real value of social media is in its use as a complement to, and in support of, the more traditional methods of campaigning and voter engagement.

Effective analytics produces winning results
Despite the ability to quantify the level of engagement with content shared across social media, how this engagement actually influences votes and delivers seats is harder to gauge. This challenge is less apparent when looking at how effectively utilised social media insights had a real influence in the outcomes of specific seats. Indeed, the major parties can point to real and concrete victories in the seats where social media analytics played a major role in their campaign. 

For instance, the win in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay where data sourced from social media analytics helped provide Labor with one of several unexpected victories this election is one such as example. In this particular seat, social media analytics informed Labor campaign chiefs that Medicare was key concern of voters in the electorate. They were then able to localise the issue and run an effective ground campaign around the existing local issue of a lack of funding for the local hospital. Whether or not the threat to Medicare or the local hospital was indeed factual is of little relevance. Labor strategists were able to effectively harness insights from social media to fine tune the key messaging of their local campaign on the issues that mattered to locals.

Similarly, the unaffiliated but unashamedly progressive activist group GetUp! utilised social media and the analytics from their online content to shape and tweak their campaign in the Tasmanian seat of Bass. GetUp! targeted sitting Liberal member Andrew Nikolic with a campaign worth roughly $300,000 that paid for TV and billboard advertising, phone calls, door-knocking and how-to-vote cards. Like in Lindsay, what made their campaign effective was their key messaging that focussed on the concerns of locals. During the election GetUp! activists were able concentrate their campaign around the thousands of undecided voters in the electorate and the issues that mattered to them.

Demographic data and analytics allowed the group to make 17,000 calls to undecided voters and enabled them to track what was the most effective and efficient means of deploying its members. Bass was eventually won by Labor candidate Ross Hart with a 10.5 per cent swing against the sitting Liberal member.

Not to be outdone by their progressive opponents and in an astute demonstration of the effectiveness of shrewdly utilised social media sourced data, the Coalition skilfully used Chinese social media platform WeChat in the Victorian seat of Chisholm to not only disseminate their key messages but also as a source of information into the concerns of the sizeable Mandarin speaking population of the electorate. That feedback into voter concerns then went on to shape the messaging of the local campaign as the election wore on. For example, the issue of changes to negative gearing proved to be a key concern of this group. Similarly, there were also concerns raised on the platform about social issues, including Labor's support for the Safe Schools program. These material concerns that were raised on social media were fed to local Liberal campaign strategists who then were able to re-focus their campaign around these issues. This particular use of social media analytics proved to be a masterstroke as results from voting booths in Box Hill, where more than 20 per cent of voters are Mandarin speakers, registered a first-preference swing of 4.2 per cent to the Liberal candidate, Julia Banks, and 5.6 per cent away from Labor. The results in these booths helped Ms. Banks record a 2.8 per cent swing towards the Coalition in Chisholm and delivered them their only gain against Labor in the entire election.