Lessons learned: what Brexit taught us about social media strategy

Unless you have been living under a very large, very remote rock for the last few weeks (and even then, I’m pretty sure you’ll still have heard), you will know that the UK voted to leave the EU in the recent referendum. In a 52% to 48% divide, we voted for a #Brexit. Whichever way you voted, the outcome of this referendum will likely impact your future, if it hasn’t already, as well as the future of our country as a whole.

Before the campaigns went into full swing, we in the digital marketing world waited with baited breath to see how the campaigns would be pushed on social media. On both sides of the debate, Vote Leave and Vote Remain groups employed the use of various social media platforms in order to influence voters — a no brainer considering it’s a predominant news source for a large proportion of the UK public. The question is, did it go as planned?

What were their social strategies?

Across the run up to the referendum, there were two prominent campaigns which rose to fight in the two corners. Britain Stronger In was the main cross party group campaigning for the UK to remain within the EU, and at the other end of the boxing ring was Vote Leave, the campaign to get Britain out of Europe.

Across both Facebook and Twitter, each campaign had a very specific way of tapping into their target audience. Vote Leave focused mainly on people’s emotions, and Britain Stronger In simply churned out the facts. Vote Leave’s posts tended to have emotive headlines such as ‘make Britain great’ and ‘vote for change’ — unlocking emotion within people and making them share, like, and comment on their posts. Britain Stronger In, by contrast, created factual articles which, although relevant, failed to engage with the social media-active generation, and got pushed to the sidelines as a result.

Both campaigns dipped their toes into the realms of Instagram too, each setting up an account and ploughing it with photos. Again, Vote Leave won the engagement battle by showing photos of people and piquing human interest. Britain Stronger In, on the other hand, filled their account with pictures of the word ‘IN’, and had fewer images of their team members campaigning.

The results of the campaign strategies were polar opposites: one side pushed out emotional messages, devoid of facts, and the other factual messages, devoid of emotion.

Someone did get it right though, and unsurprisingly, that was Facebook itself, who teamed up with Buzzfeed to create some great interactive content surrounding the referendum debate. Buzzfeed invited all of the top politicians to debate on the pros and cons of Brexit while it was streamed on Facebook Live, and users could react in realtime to what was being said through an app developed especially for it. I don’t know about you, but personally, this seemed to be the only bit of online content out there which showed a clear and concise argument for both sides.

What was the public’s social experience of Brexit?

Of course, beyond what campaigners, leaders, and groups put out on social media, the conversation was ripe for commentary from Joe Public. Whether it was your closest friends or the dodgy uncle you only see once a year, and perhaps that guy you went on a date with once, it seemed everyone was sharing their political views over social media. Both sides of the debate picked up huge traction, with various hashtags trending over multiple social platforms.

Not tending to be a place for rational debate, some of views expressed on social media were a tad strong from both sides. However, with the ways in which we construct our social hubs — and, indeed, how they are constructed for us — it is likely that your social sphere was largely like-minded to your own views. This is the result of two things: firstly, we populate our own feeds with viewpoints that we tend to agree with, deleting the uncle with opposing ideals, in favour of those we most often agree with; secondly, the algorithms employed by sites such as Facebook show you what it thinks you want to see, and filter out what it deems to be of little interest to you.

This results in our personal feeds swaying in favour of what we are already interested in and agree with — creating what has been dubbed a ‘filter bubble’ in which our feeds are framed. The flipside of this is that we are unlikely to see much of the other side of the argument — and, therefore, may be unaware of the scope of the opposing view and the traction it is gaining.

The results of the referendum were incredibly close — just 4% in it — and yet, from what your social hubs were telling you, you could easily have been convinced that your voting decision was also the preference of the large majority. We unknowingly operate our social lives within this ‘filter bubble’.

This deceptive view of social media also came to light in the publicised predictions of what the outcome of the referendum would be, based on social media analysis. However, this deception was for other reasons. Namely, whilst the #voteleave campaign was more vocal online in general, in the final 24 hours before the vote, #remain was trending higher than #leave. This lead to opinion polls suggesting that the Remain campaign would come out victorious. What this analysis did not leave enough scope for, however, is that social media is skewed largely to the younger generation, and it was the older generation who were predominantly of the Vote Leave opinion.

What Next?

Despite your view of the ultimate decision, a lot can be learnt from the ways in which both sides conducted their social strategy. We have learnt an important lesson: emotion works, and if you get it right, you are already ahead of the game. But, of course you also need the facts to back it up. We saw evidence of this when Vote Leave took down their website almost as soon as the result of their win had been announced, due to several misconceptions the website was giving the public, begging the question: how much of their online content was purely for emotive response, with little regard for fact checking? The power of social media is unquestionable, as millennials took to social media to share their immediate thoughts on the Brexit result. It showed that, even though the result was final, social media’s part in this is far from over.

If you would like advice on how to tackle a tricky social campaign, be sure to give us a shout.

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