Why the Conservatives and Labour are using TikTok differently

Labour and Conservative Party TikToks

It’s like buses: you wait for one major UK political party to join TikTok, and then two come along on the very same weekend… Must be an election! But the Conservatives and Labour are taking very different approaches to how to use the platform.

Let me guide you through the tale of two TikToks.

Why have Labour and the Conservatives suddenly joined TikTok?

Despite the growing popularity of TikTok, and its use by some Cabinet ministers such as Matt Hancock and Grant Shapps, both parties had appeared hesitant to adopt it, due to the perceived concerns over the security threat from China. The US have now passed a law to ban the app unless it’s sold by its Chinese owners – a move that ByteDance is now contesting in American courts.

TikTok has continued to maintain that it is independent of Beijing and ByteDance insists it has no plans to sell the business. 

Ciaran Martin, the former GCHQ cyber chief and ex-head of the National Cyber Security Centre, recently told the BBC’s Media Show that:

“This is mostly an issue both about geopolitics, and influence and control over the internet, than strictly speaking a cybersecurity issue”

But there are overwhelmingly compelling reasons to establish a presence on there.

In a relatively short space of time, TikTok has established itself as one of the most used social media apps among UK adults, according to Ofcom’s Online Nation report – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it soon overtakes Twitter/X.

Ofcom Online Nation reportsurvey: Top social media services among UK adults

TikTok is the most popular video platform for 15-24 year olds, who use it for an average of 58 minutes a day, according to Ofcom figures from last year, while the demographic of users is getting increasingly older. 

Ofcom Media Nations Report 2023: time spent per day on social media platforms, by age

And another Ofcom study suggests as many as 1 in 10 of us use TikTok as a news source – more so than BBC Radio 1 and Channel 5.

Ofcom news consumption report 2023: One in 10 of us use TikTok as a 'news' source

And despite signing a law to ban it, Team Biden launched their reelction campaign account in January, with a SuperBowl-themed Q&A.

 

@bidenhqlol hey guys♬ Fox nfl theme – Notrandompostsguy

You may remember that No10 enjoyed some good success during what felt like a recent peak of TikTok, during the start of the war in Ukraine.

And my 4 year old enjoyed seeing Bluey, Bingo and Boris today:

@10downingstreet What do #peppapig, bluey and bingo have in common? #uk #australia #fyp ♬ original sound – 10 Downing Street

But that account hasn’t posted since Liz Truss took over as PM and the app was then banned on government devices, though the UK government has been working with TikTok influencers and content creators behind the scenes.

Let’s hope that both parties using it means departments can get on there (with a thought-through strategy, of course.)

Why Labour are getting plaudits for their use of TikTok

Labour has over 80,000 followers on TikTok in the space of a month. The key to their most watched content has been to lean into memes and TikTok trends, mainly poking fun at Rishi Sunak and the Tories’ new policy of national service for 18 year olds.

 

@uklabour Surprise surprise #generalelection #toriesout #ukelection #ukpolitics ♬ original sound – UKLabour

Judging by the most popular comments to the videos, this approach has struck a chord with younger users, and it has even drawn praise from GB News deputy political editor Tom Harwood

GB News' Tom Harwood praises Labour's TikTok

But we’ve seen Labour ‘win’ Twitter in the last few campaigns as far back as 2015 – but that’s not resulted in being in power.

Engaging and motivating your supporters is important, but just one part of a campaign.

The TikTok trick for Labour is finding a way to blend in positive messaging about their policies, land key messages consistently, and establish Keir Starmer as a credible PM to undecided or wavering voters, in an engaging way.

But people love the banter, less so the blah content. 

On their other videos, they haven’t quite replicated the success of their viral content criticising their opponents – but there’s still a long way to go in the election.

The Tories’ approach to TikTok

It may have been a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. And I’m sure it’s a topic that CCHQ, like Labour, have been thinking about for a long time.

But TikTok isn’t the “young person’s app” anymore. Like every social media platform, it tends to be initially adopted by younger people, before older demographics join as it becomes more mainstream. For example, I have seen my personal TikToks about the death of Dennis Waterman and 40 years since Knight Rider began do well, with lots of comments sharing their memories of both.

And today, the New York Times reported internal analysis from within TikTok that found nearly twice as many posts in favour of Donald Trump than those in support of Joe Biden, since November: 1.29 million pro-Trump posts, compared to 651,000 pro-Biden posts.

Would I have launched with the National Service policy? Probably not. 

But it got people talking about the Tories’ new TikTok account – and what matters most in algorithmically-driven social feeds is people viewing and engaging with what you post. Like it or hate it, it’s seen as engagement and TikTok will therefore show you more of it.

 

@ukconservatives This will change lives #nationalservice #generalelection #uk #rishisunak ♬ original sound – Conservatives

The Tories are also boosting engagement by producing videos of Sunak replying to comments

Their TikToks so far have tended to feel more “traditional” in feel – like a vertical snip of TV, to be more watchable to an older audience.

It appears to be in keeping with the apparent messaging around the Tory leader – playing it straighter, “a sensible man with a plan” vibes – as an attempt to avoid losing votes to Labour and Reform from different sets of people. 

The digital gurus behind the Conservatives’ 2019 success were Topham Guerin. They took a dramatically different approach on TikTok with New Zealand’s National leader, Chris Luxon, who sought to disrupt social feeds and capture attention as the change candidate, as they detail in this article.

@christopherluxonmp Morning skincare routine with a focus on rebuilding the economy and restoring law and order🧴#fyp #nz #skincareroutine ♬ Aesthetic – Tollan Kim

The Sunak approach reminds me of Tony Blair’s ‘S&M strategy’ of 2005 in trying to show that you’re listening to voters, while directly reaching the public without the filter of the media.

 

So is Labour winning the election campaign on TikTok?

Reform Party on TikTok

Screenshot

On crude numbers, Labour is ahead. But the Reform Party is ahead of both, with an earlier and slow and steady approach, building 120,000+ followers. And Matt Hancock has double that, although he’s not posted since March.

But social media has changed. It’s not about followers anymore for many platforms –  not just TikTok. It’s about the engagement rate – and the engagement from the audience you want. It’s the hidden metrics from public view that are poured over by very clever social analysts at both parties.

So what is the key to winning on TikTok?

I’ve been testing a range of content on TikTok for a few years – from government case studies and PM statements to Eurovision and ‘on this day in wrestling history’.

And despite the hype, you don’t need to produce slick, highly-produced vertical videos to go viral. Simple and emotive can be very effective.

From my experience, to find and engage the right audiences, your videos need to:

  • Be new or informative
  • Be visually appealing, either in the title caption, or the first few seconds of the video
  • Generate an emotional reaction: good or bad, funny or sad – make users feel something
  • Feel relatable or sharing a common interest or passion of the user
  • Feel sharable – that the viewer wants to send the link to WhatsApp, or feel driven to reply, or like
  • Ensure that when featuring people, be it leaders or the public, they appear genuine and authentic

YouTube and WhatsApp are more important than TikTok

9 audience segments from Charlesbye report into news habits

It’s not ‘the TikTok election’, no matter what pundits claim. We live in a time where there is far too much content for us to consume, in a fragmented, competitive and ever-changing media landscape. 

The above graphic from a recent study by Charlesbye, shows that campaign communications require a sophisticated targeted approach. It’s more than Mondeo Man and Meta ads.

As the earlier table showed, YouTube is now the most popular social or digital media platform among UK adults, having overtaken Facebook. And TV is still the biggest source of news.

But keep an eye on WhatsApp – the top app most used by UK adults – especially the new-ish feature of WhatsApp Channels.

Both Labour and the Tories are using the new Channels feature to directly engage with supporters, hoping that their posts will be shared with friends and family.

Keir Starmer WhatsApp Channel

The Keir Starmer channel has 9,000 followers but Rishi Sunak is well ahead on 29,000. Both have only really been active around the local elections earlier this month.

Rishi Sunak WhatsApp Channel

The opposition leader’s one reads more like a series of tweets, while the PM has more of a personal touch, such as him taking a picture of himself holding a trophy, but neither appear to be the kind of content you’d forward onto a mate. I would have thought they may have tried one of their TikToks, posted natively on there, But expect to see more sharable content as policies get unveiled. 

The digital campaign in this 2024 general election will be bigger than ever

Digital and social media will likely be the most important its ever been in Labour and the Tories’ campaigns, with the ability to target messaging at specific groups of voters online. We’ve already seen huge sums spent on digital advertising, and we’re only in week one.

It won’t be TikTok Wot Won It, but it could play a valuable role in both parties’ strategic communications aims to win the general election.

Update: I chatted with Sean on Sky News on Thursday to discuss the importance of TikTok in the Genera Election campaign:

 

 

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