E-newsletters, persuasion and the referendum

The referendum campaign was persuasive, but not automatically linked to past partisan behaviour. Yet clearly the parties tried to use the campaign as a means of talking to their supporters. This study focused on how three of the parties supporting the Remain campaign sought to persuade using one channel. I looked at the e-newsletters of three parties: Labour; Liberal Democrats; and Greens. This study looks not just at how the parties viewed the debate on this issue, but also how they clearly had in mind future elections.

Email was used to help these parties talk to their supporters, and so focusing more on mobilising than changing opinion.

Collectively these parties sent out 27 emails during the six-week campaign to those on their publicly available e-newsletter lists. The Liberal Democrats and Labour sent the most with 10 each and the Greens 7. One of the cores to persuasive communication is the credibility of the message sender, and there was a difference of approach here. The Liberal Democrats were most likely to send their emails from an internal staff member, the Labour Party were more likely to send it on behalf of the Leader, and the Greens a well-known politician. There were some interesting nuances on the source. On the eve of polling Labour’s email including an emotive appeal in a short video from a World War two veteran. One email from the Greens took an interesting approach coming from the youth wing, and making an argument specifically about why the issue was important to young people.

The prime message projected by the e-newsletters was to raise money with fourteen messages mentioning or being only about financial resources required, though none of the Greens emails called for financial support (though the last one was an appeal to join). Thirteen messages aimed to mobilise people either to sign up for something or to attend an event. All seven of the Greens e-newsletters sought to achieve this. As might be expected the financial appeals were earlier in the campaign and more of the mobilising appeals were towards the end. There were also eleven messages that addressed the arguments why the receiver should vote a particular way, and again there was a party difference. Four of Labour’s mentioned the arguments, seven of the Greens and only one of the Liberal Democrats. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats conducted an opinion poll once to see how people expected to vote, presumably to tailor later emails. We can sum up the approach of each party’s e-newsletters to be:

•Labour – to explain why the issue is relevant to Labour voters;

•Liberal Democrats – we are doing more than everyone else, so please give us money;

•Greens – why the issue is important to the sustainable agenda.

The three parties appear to deliberately use a number of persuasion techniques. One of the most obvious is the car-salesman technique of stressing scarcity, in this case how long we have to make a difference. So Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats said “We have 45 days to shape and secure the future of our country”. Such an approach also stresses the importance of the issue, so referring to the campaign to get people to register; a Labour email said “This is the week that can make or break our campaign.”

Probably the most common thread was to stress the importance of the vote. For example, it was referred to as “by far the most important vote of a generation.” Such appeals were aimed at those who had a high interest in the debate. Both the Labour Party and the Greens provided rationally based arguments tailored to the needs of their supporters.

Another key component in the messages was fear, that something bad would happen if people did not vote. Thus a Liberal Democrat email said “last week the IMF said that Britain voting leave could range from ‘pretty bad to very, very bad.’” They also used fear messages within their fundraising efforts, stressing that “Nigel Farage is on track to outspend us over the coming weeks,” the hope being that this would prompt more donations. Indeed, the appeals for donations consistently demonstrate the use of persuasion. The requests for donations often had specific amounts, explained what a particular donation value would allow the campaigners to do, and what the effect would be.

This study was limited in terms of sample and communication channel, though there are clear themes. Email was used to help these parties talk to their supporters, and so focusing more on mobilising than changing opinion. Fear may have taken more of a role than it might in General Elections, but this can be explained by the one-off nature of the vote. All the parties seemed to have more than half an eye on the future, and their long-term relationship with e-newsletter subscribers by encouraging activity.