Five years post-referendum: ‘the digital campaign revolution continues’

As we pass the five year anniversary of the EU Referendum, the former chief technical officer of Vote Leave, Thomas Borwick, reflects on digital comms and campaigning, how it’s changed since the referendum and what we can expect politically after Covid.

The seismic vote that happened in June 2016 could very easily happen again now in any area of campaigning, from the corporate world to the political arena. The digital tools that supported our efforts in 2016 have become more advanced, and thus the insights and targeting offered to campaigners by those tools are more refined, practically applicable and effective.

This presents a dramatic opportunity for campaigners of all stripes, not just to influence and persuade, but more importantly to understand their prospective voters to a level of detail not previously available.

It is possible to synthesise with audiences, and identify exactly which facets of a proposition need to be presented and amplified to best persuade key stakeholders with laser-like precision.

Technological advances and astute communications strategies have moved the environment on from a system in which the population selects a hero leader to empower a set of calculating citizens keen to assume that role. It is now possible for any candidate to create a movement at a drastically reduced cost, speed and strength.

This ease with which it is now possible to galvanise support is something completely unanticipated. It is likely that the topics about which the next cultural, political and economic battles will be fought are currently relatively unknown. However, the core concepts and fundamental principles on which these battles will be fought are readily identifiable and eminently familiar.

The rapid technological developments and widespread device-reliance of the last decade has driven data-privacy to become an increasingly dominant theme over the last five years. We now have more cookie pop-ups than you can shake a stick at, and rightly so.

It would have been hard to predict that the effect of our technological innovations would mean things we for so long considered normal (like the privacy of our personal information) became question marks. I have been impressed to see so many people take ownership of their data and personal details online. This shift is well illustrated by a 2019 Cisco survey that examined the actions (not just attitudes) of consumers with respect to their data privacy – results showed that 32% of respondents were willing to switch companies or providers due to their data or data sharing policies.

The data and information available from people that have consented to provide it is now infinitely better than it was five years ago.

As campaigners, we are always trying to work out the target audience for a political campaign, figuring out how to segment these messages and address who will support each. I have found it is most valuable to segment political messages into those which encourage investigation, those which rally support, those which create obstacles for one’s opponent and those which lay the groundwork for future campaigns.

The innovations that have been brought about by Apple’s recent iOS 14.5 update have encouraged a level of privacy awareness that was never before seen, including the option to determine whether or not one’s activity is tracked by companies’ apps and websites, for ads or sharing with data brokers. The update has also resulted in a variety of new ways to target messages to different people that were not possible before.

The tragic events of the last fifteen months and the effects that the Covid pandemic have had on our communities should not be ignored.

The resulting uncertainty combined with abnormally high death rates has caused a societal shift on a scale not seen not been before. This has created a population which is uniquely open to new ideas and products. We as a society must be mindful of this and safeguard against the risks and opportunities it creates.

After most pandemics we have seen periods of change in our societal and political structures, the political community must be cautious and responsible as we move forward into the next five years.

Thomas Borwick is a political strategist and campaign consultant and the founding director of consultancy College Green Group. He was chief technical officer for Vote Leave in 2016.

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