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Why don't council candidates run more ads?
Digital ads democratise campaigning, right? Right?
Running for council is, like any election campaign, a tough business.
It’s made even harder by the extraordinarily tight restrictions on how much you can spend - around £1500 for everything (ads, leaflets, travel, staff, design, meetings, accommodation, mobile phone bill, photocopying…) to try and persuade the voters in your ward.
With such a low budget, buying a few digital ads would appear to be very tempting, as you get a lot of reach for your money and, unlike a printed leaflet, you don’t have to recruit volunteers to get them in front of voters. Digital ads can work quietly on your behalf, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They don’t get tired and they don’t eat bad pizza.
With this cheap reach, you could do the things a local candidate needs to do:
Build name recognition when people probably don’t know who you are (even if you’ve been a councillor for 20 years, your ‘personal’ vote isn’t going to be very big)
(If you’re working towards reelection) talk about the resources you’ve secured, the improvements to local amenities and the cuts you’ve prevented.
(If you’re a new candidate) talk about how the current council has the wrong priorities and burnish your local credentials.
(If you’re an independent) talk about how the big parties have never done anything for your area, and it’s time for residents to take matters into their own hands.
And with the targeting capabilities of the mega-platforms, you should also be able to reach exactly who you want to, right? Wrong.
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Why is it hard for council candidates to run good ad campaigns?
The first problem: it’s hard to reach the right people
There are some significant limitations for running the kind of hyper-local campaign that would appear, on the surface, to be effective for winning a council seat.
Despite the common perception of social media advertising, geographical microtargeting is hard. The postcode-level ad targeting offered by Meta, Google and Snapchat doesn’t offer the granularity a ward-level campaign needs. You’re either going to miss some people in your ward, or hit some in neighbouring wards because postcode segments (e.g. “SE15 2”), which are the smallest areas you can target, don’t overlap perfectly with council ward boundaries.
Next, it’s hard to work out how to focus in on the right people. A ward might have 10,000 voters, of whom a third will actually vote (mostly because they always vote). Of those 3,333, you might need 1,000-1,500 to win your seat, most of whom have made up their minds already (again, because they always vote but also because they always vote for the same party, unless they’re really, really annoyed). In the end, there are only a few hundred persuadable voters in a ward, plus a few hundred more who aren’t sure whether they’ll vote.
And the persuadable social media audience is even smaller than that. Let’s say around 50% of people actually regularly log on to Facebook, Instagram or YouTube in the few weeks before an election. It’s a back of the envelope calculation, but by the time you take into account turnout and the vote share you’ll ultimately need, it could be that there are as few as 500 people in your ward who you want to reach with social media ads. Do they have anything much in common that would help you focus in on them? Probably not.
Some candidates do target people interested in “politics”, “community issues” or the local football team, but in doing so, they’re likely making their audience too small. A handful of other candidates use Facebook’s “Custom Audiences” to reach people they’ve already had some contact with (either via an email list or a website visit). This is useful for mobilising people or trying to get them to volunteer, but unless you’ve collected every email in the ward, it’s not going to work well for persuasion. Lastly, Facebook’s “Lookalike Audience" targeting could be useful for local candidates, who can collect a bit of data from people who are going to vote for them, then ask Facebook’s algorithms to try and find more people like them in the area. It sounds good in principle, but in practice, we’re yet to find a local candidate doing this.
So the best available strategy for most candidates is to simply target the postcodes in the ward and hope for the best. Thousands of people will likely end up seeing your ads, and most won’t be the right ones. You’ll just have to accept that a big chunk of the money you spend will be wasted. Worse, with such a tiny electorate and no budget to do any research, it’s very hard to prove the ads that did hit their target worked either. Even if you think your campaign is promoting the right messages, you’ll never really know if they helped you win.
As one of the most famous sayings in advertising goes: “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half”.
For council candidates, that half might only be 5%.
The second problem: it’s hard to cut through
To get people to pay attention, your ads need to be interesting (so people will remember them), but not too interesting (it’s fine to be noticed, but you won’t want to become a big story). People might only see them once or twice, so they’d better be memorable.
Unfortunately for you, here’s where your resource limitations kick back in again. Even though many candidates combine their efforts, which gives them a higher shared budget, their ability to do the things that national parties do - research, focus group, test, design and deploy ads is still very limited.
Furthermore, being interesting on social media comes at a cost. On Facebook and Instagram, political advertising invites comments. These aren’t always polite. Running an ad means moderating and engaging with the ‘discussion’ below (which is no fun, but surely better than letting it fester). This takes time and a specific set of skills - both things that small campaigns are unlikely to have.
Given all this, if they do anything at all, candidates tend to avoid any attempt at creativity and keep it very simple, either by posting their printed material as a digital ad:
By making a straight-to-camera appeal (authentic, but hard to get right):
By posting a picture of themselves campaigning on a local street:
Or by promoting a simple “vote for us on May 4th” appeal:
All the incentives are towards being pretty boring and uncontroversial. Unfortunately, as a result, they’re also very unlikely to have an impact on the ultimate outcome.
Despite the idea that they democratise campaigning, most candidates don’t actually buy digital ads
At this point, almost everyone knows that anyone can run a digital ad - all you need is a credit card and a social media account. But that hasn’t translated into many candidates actually doing it, let alone doing it well.
For the elections on May 4th, there are over 8,000 seats to be decided and over 25,000 candidates standing for them. But, based on our research, under 450 UK party political Facebook/Instagram accounts (and only one Google account) have run ads in the last week. That’s not to say that local candidates won’t have any ads supporting them - the national and local parties are quite active (see below), but very few of the advertisers are individuals or groups of candidates. Similarly, independents are a rapidly growing trend in British local politics but, despite not having a larger infrastructure to support them, they’re mostly absent from advertising too.
Perhaps because they’ve taken the limitations above into account, or perhaps because they don’t have the skills, most UK local candidates steer well clear of digital ads. Despite the digital revolution in campaigning over the last 15 years, the paper leaflet, shoved through the letterbox at an ungodly hour, is still king.
What are the parties are up to in the final days before May 4th?
With a week and a half to the local elections, here’s a quick overview of what is being said via the main party pages:
Labour (£12,107 spent, combining their main page and Keir Starmer’s) is running ads on crime, the cost of living and the NHS as well as ads getting out the postal vote and targeting Tory > Labour switchers. Starmer is running ads on the same themes.
The Lib Dems, Greens and Reform aren’t running anything at all this week.
Anyway, here’s the totals spent by everyone, and how active they were on Meta in the week to 22nd April:
One last thing before we go
We got our start at Newspeak House in London. It runs an excellent residency programme for people working to change society with technology. If that’s you, or someone you know, please apply!
Until next time!
Team Full Disclosure @ Who Targets Me