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What the referendum taught us

Other than the obvious, that Scots don’t want independence.

For the world of digital marketing, the Scottish Referendum is an invaluable case study of how social media can be utilised to garner public support, but also an experiment in its limitations.

From 17th December 2013 – after the Bill passed Royal Assent – and right up until the polls closed on the 18th September, there were 8.8 million online conversations regarding the vote. Tweets, blogs and forums formed the main bulk of activity, while news reports only 1%.

Twitter Statistics:

  • 8.6 million total mentions
  • 31,193 tweets per day
  • 1,300 tweets per hour

Despite losing the vote, the ‘Yes’ campaign received a greater share of social coverage overall. 36.4% compared to the ‘No’ campaign’s 26%. The First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond (although he has since resigned), tweeted 1.5 times more than his ‘No’ campaign counterpart, Alistair Darling.

Stats according to Bell Pottinger Wired

Yes means No

But clearly the ‘Yes’ campaign’s emphasis on social media didn’t go to plan, as the ‘Better Together’ campaign, who focused primarily on print and broadcast media, came out on top.

The reason for this disparity is actually pretty clear. The majority of ‘No’ voters were older and therefore less likely to be addicted to social media and be swept up in the online hype. ‘No’ voters were also less likely to rant and rave about their leaning, preferring to let their vote do the talking and avoid online attacks and criticism. Therefore, social media cannot be relied upon to scientifically calculate political momentum, not yet at least.

Social media opinion cannot necessarily be counted upon to accurately forecast outcome, nor can it be relied upon as a general consensus of public opinion, with an 87% overall neutral opinion on Twitter.

To put things into perspective…

Episode 4 of the Great British Bake Off (for those who don’t watch it, it’s the one where some guy with a beard threw his ice cream in the bin) saw a peak in Twitter activity, with an average of 3,948 tweets per minute. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that more people ‘cared’ about GBBO (disputable), and evidently there was no big GBBO campaign encouraging viewers to tweet, but the reactions are comparable with the Referendum debate.

Social media is a great way to see what people care about and want to talk about. Interactions can help measure social trends, but trends are by their very nature fluid and fickle. Whereas the Referendum presented us with a long term discourse, GBBO’s #BinGate scandal was a momentary peak, a single event. When reviewing social statistics, it’s important to keep this in mind.

Social trends peak at certain events: mostly those that divide opinion, where people feel the need to comment and join the hype. Perhaps the reason the ‘Yes’ campaign were so successful on social media was because it worked with, and pushed, certain events throughout the campaign. Right from the start they created social hype;  the proposal itself was a massive social event. Trends are infectious. The more people talking about it on social media, the more people learn about it and get drawn in to the hype. Users tend to follow/associate with people who share similar ideas and opinions, therefore news feeds tend to be filled with generally more targeted opinion. For those who haven’t made their mind up, are neutral, or simply don’t care, seeing the magnitude and vigour behind the ‘Yes’ campaign could sweep them up and get them to support the campaign.

Anarchy in the UK

The main thing we can take away from the Scottish Referendum is that 21st Century voters no longer take what the establishment tells them at face value. The press, big businesses, the main political parties and most unions were overwhelmingly against the ‘Yes’ vote. In previous decades this would probably have shown in the final figures, with a much larger gap in number of votes. However, it was still pretty close. It goes to show we don’t always believe what the leading figures and authorities tell us. Social media is the Great British Public’s platform for discourse, with the freedom to openly question and criticise the establishment.