In a small but tidy office room just minutes from the Palace of Westminster, five men and one woman, all seemingly in their twenties, are hard at work at their laptops and iMacs. They are surrounded by maps of the UK studded with small flags and colour-coded by party majority. One white sheet pasted to the wall is plastered with doggo pics and emblazoned with a reminder of the number of days left until the December 12 election. A slightly weathered Union Jack hangs on the wall.
On one of the Macs, a young man is editing a video. It shows a bespectacled man walking about a coastal town, as he greets passersby and tours grocery shops; his peregrinations are interspersed with fetching images of solar panels on a roof, a kid riding a bike, and aerial shots of a pier. At some point, the man starts giving a spiel to the camera. “Please, vote for me on December 12,” he concludes. A Conservative logo materialises on the screen.
“It’s not finished yet, but you get the gist,” Craig Dillon says. Blonde, slim, and smartly dressed, 27-year-old Dillon is the founder and CEO of Westminster Digital, a political consultancy that specialises in helping British politicians refine their social media strategy, tweak their messaging and – most important – put out sleek campaigning videos. The firm is young. It was just after the 2017 general election that Dillon, as a digital producer at Sky, realised that most politicos were inept at producing digital content, and that he could create a business cashing in on that ineptitude. Over the last two years, the firm has already left its mark on British politics – among other things, by helping Boris Johnson secure the keys to Number 10 during this summer’s leadership election.
As December 12 draws closer, working life has gotten ever-busier for Westminster Digital’s eight-strong team. A list stuck on the wall beside the door contains the names of Mark Francois, Theresa Villiers, and Steve Baker among many others – all of them Conservatives. Dillon says his company works with MPs from all parties, but that they have put non-Tory clients on hold until after the election, to avoid conflicts of interest. “We are currently working with 50 candidates,” he says. “That’s a ballpark figure.”
This is supposed to be the Brexit election. The specificities, merits and flaws of individual prospective MPs have faded into the distance as celebrities, campaigners and commentators urge voters to tactically tick the box next to whoever is most likely to deliver or frustrate the referendum result. But watching any of the videos Westminster Digital produces for its clients’s Facebook and Instagram accounts you would barely remember that Brexit is even a thing.
Westminster Digital’s sleek sixty to ninety-second Facebook clips are all about local issues. Candidates are shown sauntering down their constituencies’ main streets, dropping by the local schools or NHS surgery, sipping coffee in small-town cafes. “We don’t allow any of them to go to Pret,” Dillon quips.
If the person in the video is an incumbent MP, the clip would rattle off their track record on defending their constituency’s interest, and double down on future pledges; if they are standing for the first time, they would establish their bona fide local credentials in feel-good debut clips. National issues – Johnson’s promises of delivering Brexit, investing in the NHS, funding police and education – are only mentioned insofar as they can be reframed as local matters. “There’s just a bit of manipulation in terms of how the video is presented,” Dillon says. “Instead of talking about investing in the NHS, you’ll say ‘investing in our local hospital’, so that you’ve immediately turned the national issue into a local one.”
The thinking behind Westminster Digital’s approach is that, especially at such a divisive time, people are retrenching. “Things are so polarised that people are coming back to local politics,” says managing director Tom Dixon; Dillon talks of “Brexit fatigue”.
“What people really care about more than anything is issues that affect them day to day, and for 99 per cent of people in this country, Brexit does not affect them day to day at all,” Dillon says. “But what does affect them is traffic on the way to school, not having enough police on the streets, not being able to get GPs. Those are the things that really matter.” He says that numbers prove him right. “When we have candidates who want to talk about something like Brexit, I’ll say ‘Fine, let’s do it’,” he says.
“What we would then do is pull out the results and show them that hardly anyone watched the Brexit video to the end, but they all watched the video about the bus, they all watched the video about the local schools. That shows that engagement levels are much higher on local issues.”
There are some other intuitive advantages to pushing the local angle – apart from the fact that it waves away any immediate association between local candidates and Brexit or Boris. One is that showing local landmarks or well-known local shops is bound to be more intriguing for constituents. Westminster Digital’s mostly-older target audience is not made up of people who spend their afternoons paging through party manifestos or policy papers – but more people who love scrolling through their Facebook or Instagram feeds and watching clips from I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here or the Daily Mail.
“If you can then put a very nice high quality video that inserts itself into their feed, they will watch and engage with it,” he says.
“But you have three seconds to catch [people’s] attention on Facebook. That’s why if you show them, say, Penny Mordaunt and they go ‘She’s in my shop! She’s in my town square!’ That catches their attention for three seconds, and then they might watch the video until the end.”
Of course, to pull that trick effectively, conditions apply. One is that the videos have to look good, something which Westminster Digital took care of by hiring people with experience in content production and not politics. Shaky videos filmed on the candidate’s smartphone might have worked for Rory Stewart, but in most cases won’t cut the mustard.
And of course, delivering those videos to the right eyes needs targeting. Have a look at Westminster Digital’s adverts on Facebook’s library and you’ll notice that on average impression numbers for each video hover around the low thousands. But that is exactly the point: geo-targeting the ads to specific areas so that they are displayed to the candidate’s constituents, and hopefully shared and shared again. “What we much prefer [to targeting] is natural, organically-shared content,” Dillon says.
By refining the targeting and then relying on enthralled viewers to spread the video, Dixon says, Westminster Digital is allowing its clients to engage with a huge number of voters at a fraction of the cost other methods would require. “In this election we are making four videos for each candidate and they are reaching on average about 20,000 constituents, with impressions of about 40,000 to 50,000 altogether,” Dixon says. “That is a third of constituents – can you imagine [how successful it would be] if a third of a candidate’s constituents read their leaflet?”
Both Dixon and Dillon are rather scathing about leaflets, which they regard as a waste of time, money, and paper. They are also scathing of Twitter – which they consider the preserve of “the Westminster bubble” – completely removed from the political debate in the rest of the UK.
“People on Twitter have already decided how they’re going to vote,” Dillon says. “We want the people that are really not bothered about politics. People who, at work, on their lunch break, will see a video of a guy talking about a new bypass, and will think, ‘actually, we need a new bypass in our town’.” Those people are now mostly on Facebook, which is also the natural online hunting ground for Conservatives, a vast plain of older people; that, Dillon says, poses a problem for Labour, which has to try and talk to its younger potential voters on Instagram, or through messaging services. “Labour will be running ads on Snapchat. The Conservatives don’t need to do that,” he says. (In fact, the Conservatives did run some Snapchat ads, even if they spent much less than Labour.)
That does not mean that Westminster Digital has always shunned the Westminster bubble – which, after all, is instrumental to make or break an ambitious MP’s career. In an interview with British GQ, Dillon bragged about making Johnny Mercer minister for veterans just by helping him become the national champion for the veteran issue, social media post after veteran-focused social media post. “At the national level, it is all about owning an issue,” Dixon explains.
But while its clientele, its location, and even its name make the company a card-carrying member of the Westminster scene, Dillon believes that attitude is what matters the most. “None of [our employees] are political animals: they’d rather sit there and talk about football [than politics],” he says. “That actually is really important because it reminds the politicians there’s a whole big world out there.”
Have Dillon and his team found the recipe – political messages delivered with apolitical pizzaz – to soothe the UK’s ballot-weary Brendas from Bristol, and win them over? We might be about to find out – on December 12.
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