Election 2017 Facebook stocktake - or how Labour abandoned Brand Little

Facebook is the social media channel of choice for politicians and political parties. The reasons are pretty simple:

  • A more representative audience of New Zealand
  • Superior audience reach
  • Comprehensive content tools
  • More mature advertising platform
  • Better ability to convert post engagement to political engagement
  • Ties into Instagram.

Facebook's user base in New Zealand has reached 2.9 million active users per month, with around two-thirds of those using it every day. Twitter usage statistics are much harder to come by, but seem to indicate around 500,000 accounts in New Zealand, but the number who are active on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis is much harder to find. Judging by international trends, it's likely to be as little as 5% - 10% of that number are online on a daily basis, with even fewer bothering to tweet (leading to discussions being dominated by just a handful of very vocal users). Not all is lost for Twitter, as its usage does seem to be dramatically improving in Australia.

So with that in mind, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the massive impact that John Key's resignation had on the social media playing field. In an instant the National-led Government went from having the largest political Facebook page for the country's most popular Prime Minister in living memory, to not having it.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

Comparison of major political Facebook pages in New Zealand as at 4 December 2016, the day before John Key resigned as Prime Minister.

As you can see from the above, John Key's Facebook page dwarfed all others in the country, bringing with it an ability to organically (non-paid) reach a pretty massive audience.

The raw numbers were:

  • John Key 248,890
  • Greens 90,332
  • Winston Peters 69,660
  • National 64,048
  • Labour 52,283
  • Andrew Little 28,866
  • Bill English 13,361

The net result though is that losing John Key as the major Facebook presence was always going to leave a massive hole that needed filling. I knew from the successful election 2014 just how important Facebook was in terms of reaching voters (more on that in the future), so the challenge was set to minimise the loss of the John Key page and build the new Prime Minister's page up to be as large as possible while still maximising opportunities to get targeted content in front of relevant audiences.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

Comparison of political Facebook pages as of the commencement of the Regulated Period, three months out from polling day.

What you can see here is a pretty incredible turnaround in little more than six months. It was always going to be a challenge to overhaul the Green Party within that time, but to come within a whisker of being the largest political page in the country in such a short period of time took a pretty amazing effort to achieve.

Relative to 2014 it's a bit of a mixed bag. Around 23 June 2014 (the only statistics I have available) John Key was around 148,000 likes, the Greens around 48,000, Winston and Labour both at 15,000, National at 13,000, and Cunliffe was somewhere in the order of 12,600. The big difference being that at the start of the 2014 Regulated Period, John Key was a dominant Facebook presence, whereas National lagged behind everyone. Fast forward to 2017 and while Key is gone, National is larger than Labour and has significantly closed the gap on the Greens.

There is one difference for Bill English versus John Key though. For John Key many of his page likes were what I referred to as "legacy likes". They were people who had liked his page years earlier, but didn't interact with it at all and, as a result, were unlikely to see his content. Bill English has the advantage now that nearly all of his likes are relatively fresh, meaning there's more of a chance they'll see and engage with what he posts.

One thing did strike me over this period though, and admittedly struck me well before then too, was just how little Labour seemed to invest in Andrew Little. Around the Wellington beltway people suspected for a while that Labour had just decided Andrew Little was never going to be appealing, and so instead focused on their own Party brand and promoting Jacinda Ardern as the face of Labour. The lack of growth in Little's Facebook page lends credence to this.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

Facebook page like growth from 4 December 2016 through to 23 June 2017, note Andrew Little off to the right.

And if you're curious, here's the raw numbers:

  • Bill English 85,691
  • Labour 12,119
  • National 11,350
  • Winston Peters 9,756
  • Greens 9,180
  • Andrew Little 4,720

As to how Bill English did so well? That's a trade secret. Becoming Prime Minister obviously helps. But what's really interesting here is the complete non-performance of Andrew Little. When you delve behind the headline numbers, it's easy to understand why. Over that six month period Andrew Little posted just 156 times, versus 342 for Bill English, 423 for the Labour Party, 262 for the National Party, 350 for the Greens, and 195 for Winston Peters.

It's clear that Labour is putting all their effort into promoting Brand Labour rather than Brand Little. In my mind that approach works when you're the Green Party, when you know that you're not going to supply a Prime Minister, so instead the focus is less on the leader and more on the collective whole. But when you're one of the two main parties, the approach makes next to no sense. On a fundamental level, the Party Vote component of MMP is the closest New Zealand gets to a Presidential style election, where I believe that vote is driven by how much someone likes a Party leader, with the exception of the Greens who have always had a much stronger party brand than individual brand.

Herein lies Labour's problem come 23 September. They simply haven't invested the time, effort, or money into developing Andrew Little's online profile, so they're going into the campaign with one arm very firmly tied behind their back.

Labour's approach was also betrayed in a recent Fairfax story on political social media:

A spokesman for Andrew Little said the party was "very active on twitter, facebook and instagram" as effective platforms "to connect to people of all ages".

"We're really excited by the possibilities that social media offers to help us explain Labour's story to voters.

"We're very happy with the engagement we get from people, but we're continually looking at creative ways to improve the way we communicate to voters and we expect to roll out some innovative approaches in this regard during the election campaign."

What that quote says to me is that they're placing the Labour Party before Andrew Little in their social strategy, and in a campaign where Andrew Little and Bill English are going to be pitted head-to-head on a regular basis, it seems like an odd strategy given the nature of modern campaigns.

Of course, having a large Facebook following isn't ever going to win you the election, but it makes it much easier to get your message out to a much larger audience. Page likes have an element of being a bit of a vanity metric, in that it's nice to have a larger Facebook page than your rivals, but the real benefit is that it enables you to reach more people without spending on ads.

Where that matters in an election campaign is that you can guarantee a relatively large audience will see your daily out and about posts, and instead focus all your paid advertising on the tailored messaging you need to reach specific target audiences.

All of this also begs the question of what position would Labour be in if Jacinda Ardern was the leader. She's more active on Facebook, has a larger number of page likes, and while she hasn't grown that presence as much as Andrew Little over the past six months, she doesn't have control of Labour's Leader's office budget. Yet...