Whenever the impact of online communities on event attendance is raised, my mind wanders to Brexit – and specifically to the successful 2016 referendum campaign masterminded by Dominic Cummings, which set the UK on course to depart the European Union.
While the Remain campaign was centred around the tried-and-tested approach of canvassing opinion door-to-door, reaching the electorate directly and hoping to win their support face-to-face, Vote Leave used the exact same demographic profiling categories as Facebook’s marketing team uses for its digital advertising platform.
Vote Leave targeted an audience of around seven million undecided voters, on which it compiled specific data in large enough samples to ensure reliability, took this data and plugged it straight back into Facebook. This enabled Vote Leave to, for example, target women between 35 and 45, located in a particular region, with/without a degree, and so on.
By working with large samples accessible via social media, useful information could be extracted on relatively small specific voter (attendee) breakdowns, and then used to help target them in a subsequent marketing campaign.
It was a bold move, but let’s not forget that the scales were tipped in favour of remain voters when the referendum was called in 2015. Historically, status quo campaigns almost always win in referendums. Those seven million potential voters stood to play a major role.
The upshot is that when the public engaged with the referendum debate in the 4-6 weeks before the vote, the Vote Leave team had a profiled audience, in the digital world, that could be approached independently and according to classification.
And what an impact this was to have. Cummings held back almost all of Vote Leave’s budget to use in the last ten days, predominantly in the last three or four days; whereby it was used to reach the seven million-strong audience with around one and a half billion digital adverts over a relatively short period of time.
The rest is history (in the making).
River damming and distrust
This strategy would likely be a lot more complicated today. Since 2016 Facebook has restricted its data sharing practice, and regulations such as GDPR in European Union member states have slowed the flow of data to those in search of it.
Interfaces between organisers and social media have changed too. Last year Facebook removed the API for automatic sharing, a tool commonly used (perhaps ill-advisedly) to promote tradeshows to friends of people who had registered through social media. The minute someone signed up they were auto-opted into sharing this fact with their contacts.
This is not the case today, which is no bad thing according to Tamar Beck, director of trade show attendee acquisition company Gleanin. Beck says this practice of automatic posting can make people feel they’ve been tricked, preventing them from signing up via social media. She also believes that organisers should be wary of basing their digital marketing campaigns on third party APIs, which are prone to regular amendment that risks upsetting the apple cart.
Organisers can still leverage social media to grow attendance, refer people to the event through their contacts and networks, and they can still have sight (at the moment) of when someone has taken an action to share something, be it via WhatsApp, Facebook or LinkedIn – and track any registrations to come from the app.
The fact remains however that social sharing is down; people are simply less trusting of social networks. GDPR aside, organisers inclined to boost their visitor attendance figures by adopting a similar approach today will have to overcome a grassroots level backlash against previously popular platforms.
This may be reflected in the numbers who sign up using social media. An average of 10 per cent choose to register by social media, according to Beck; a small percentage of the audience.
For the sake of comparison, person-to-person invites and invites by email, comprise around 24 per cent of overall registration figures. “That’s really high. And this is old technology, text-based, no HTML, you have to know a person’s address, and you have to fill it in yourself,” says Beck.
“That’s why broadcast is declining. You can pick individuals out but everything is opt-in – we want to present opportunities to attendees. If they want to refer it to someone, we want to make it easier however they choose to do so.”
“They might want to use WhatsApp, email, social networks. Everyone is going to have a different view. These days we want to maximise the number of people who are comfortable sharing.”
Companies such as Gleanin help – and measure – the ways in which event attendees choose to connect digitally. But to do so effectively, an organiser’s digital attendee acquisition campaign must not rely solely on social media platforms.
It would be interesting to see if the UK would be poised to leave the EU had Vote Leave adopted this strategy today.