Ask the Expert - How ‘Vote Leave’ used social media to win and what this means for the future of digital advertising

In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU in a historic referendum.

Both sides of the referendum relied heavily on social media to promote their campaign but it was the leave campaigners who commissioned AggregateIQ to handle their digital ads. Arguably, it was these ads, particularly their use of micro-targeting, that won the vote in such a close race.

The ads featured specific issues such as immigration or animal rights to push the buttons of certain groups of people, based on their age, where they lived and other personal data taken from social media and a personality quiz.

The personality quiz harvested data not only from participants' profiles but also their friends’ data which was allowed by Facebook.

This has raised a lot of questions about data and ethics, the future of social media advertising and personalisation, and the expectations for consumer trust.

We spoke with Peter Andrews, an award-winning marketer and senior lecturer at the University of Hull Business School, to discuss this topic. He'll be speaking about this campaign and its implications in Hull on 16 October. Make sure not to miss his talk and book your tickets here before they sell out.


Brands already offer us purchase suggestions based on our data. What has happened differently in this case?

Using data to target consumers is nothing new, but the way that the 'Vote Leave' campaign micro-targeted specific groups of ‘voters’ was done in a way and on a scale that had not been documented before.

The pre-stage testing involved deeper insight into consumer attitudes and behaviours so that social media advertising messages could be targeted at a very granular level. 

In the final week before the referendum over 1,400 different advertising messages were specifically targeted towards ‘voter groups’.  This meant that around 7 million people saw around 1.5 billion digital ads over a short period before going to the voting booth.


Do you think the British public understand the full story of what has happened?

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion around what the Leave campaign did.  Traditionally, political marketing had been relatively democratic in that it would be done in the open and debated by all parties and critiqued by the media.  In this case, it was only visible to individuals.


How do you think brands could learn from this?

Regardless of your political viewpoint, at the heart of this campaign is mass personalisation or mass one-to-one marketing.  This is a major trend within marketing and one that needs addressing by all marketers. 

The data is clear, micro-targeting with personalisation delivers more return on your investment than other forms of marketing. 

Away from political marketing, we can look at a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group which found that brands which offer personalised products, services or experiences are growing revenues by 6-10%, which is 2-3 times faster than brands that do not. 

Another US study by OneSpot found that personally relevant content increases brand purchase intent for more than three-quarters of consumers and makes half of the consumers willing to pay a premium for the brand.


How do you think this will affect the future of Facebook advertising/personalised advertising?

Fundamentally social media platforms like Facebook need to drive advertising revenue to succeed, as this is their business model. 

In the past, Facebook would have liked to sell advertisers the biggest audiences possible as it directly affects revenue.  However, there is a challenge, in that consumers engage less when advertising is not relevant to them and spend less time on those social media platforms. 

The recent changes to the Facebook algorithm mean that consumers should see more meaningful content and engagement rates are increasing in many cases. 

I expect to see a higher level of targeting and personalisation through social media advertising, but this will come at a cost and is likely to see rates continuing to rise in the foreseeable future.


How do you think this will affect politicians using social media in the future?

Politicians are increasingly using social media adverting, but the success of the Vote Leave campaign and others (including Labour using dark social media), will see this form of marcoms becoming central to their campaigns.

I expect that we will see a shift to a digital-first approach, which is not entirely new as this is what propelled Obama to his first stint in the White House.  There will, however, be a debate over the ethics of micro-targeting, but this is unlikely to change its use as politicians do everything they can to win votes. 


CIM’s upcoming event

If you’ve enjoyed today’s Q&A join us at the CIM’s ‘how ‘Vote Leave’ used social media to win Brexit’ you can book your ticket here


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