Gage Skidmore



The Digital Marketing Strategy behind Brexit

The EU referendum result was many things to many people. To some, it was an economic disaster and a historical step backwards driven by xenophobia and ignorance. To others, it was a glorious moment when ordinary British people said no to globalization and to the establishment.

To me, it was a brilliant example of digital marketing done right.

Now digital marketing done right doesn’t necessarily mean digital marketing done for the right reasons, nor does it mean digital marketing done for the wrong reasons. That is to say, this is an article about how the team behind Brexit were much better at marketing their campaign online than their rivals were.

It’s not about whether Brexit was a good thing or a bad thing. (Though, for the sake of transparency, I voted to remain.) Nor is this an article which dives into statistical analysis of polls while blindly ignoring what actually happened. The latter is why everyone was so surprised by the referendum result. Everyone in the newsrooms, that is. Because to anyone who knows digital marketing, the result should have been obvious. (I mean, it wasn’t. No-one saw this coming. But it should have been.)

Vote Leave was a stronger campaign because of the way it marshalled people around a two-word imperative sentence that, when punched into Google, gave you exactly what you wanted. It was catchy, it was short, and it had what we digital marketers like to call “commercial intent.” In other words, the people who typed “vote leave” into Google were looking to vote leave.

“Stronger In,” by contrast, was a confused brand-name for a confused campaign that was also known by the names “Vote Stay” and “Vote Remain.” Almost no-one referred to the campaign by its actual name: “Britain Stronger In Europe.”

In fact, a Google Trends analysis (analysis based on what every single person on Google is actually doing not based on what a handful of people say they might do — and yes, that was a barely concealed stab at polls analysis) reveals how much more popular a search term “vote leave” was.

Vote Leave spikes. Stronger In flatlines

This graph tells us many things.

The first is that “vote leave” was a significantly more popular search term that any of the terms people used to identify its rival campaign. “Vote remain” and “vote stay” have small spikes in June, “stronger in” doesn’t change (we’ll get to that), and the search term “Britain stronger in Europe” is barely visible.

The second is that British election cycles are much shorter than American ones.

From the small blips in data, you can see that the Vote Leave campaign started in late January 2016 at the earliest, which was about five months before the referendum. By contrast, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign started way back in July 2015, which was a ridiculous 15 months before the election.

As for Stronger In? From this graph, it’s hard to say when their campaign started, if it started at all, because results for that search term don’t change. The results over a five-year period paint an even starker picture.

The fact that that search term didn’t spike, or even blip, during the heat of the referendum, when compared to the other terms, goes to show that people hardly associated the campaign to stay in Europe with those words. To get an idea of when the Stronger In campaign actually began, you have to isolate the “stronger in” search term and filter results so you just get the UK. Doing anything else means that the search term is drowned out by its more successful rival and by the fact that people were using the term “stronger in” for years before to refer to something else entirely.

Let’s take a look at another graph.

This graph shows us just the period from May to July and only searches made in the UK. From this, it’s even clearer how well the Vote Leave campaign did. To be honest, we should be shocked that Vote Leave only won by four percentage points. If searches were votes, there’d be no contest.

In fact, in this referendum, searches pretty much were votes. After all, both campaigns were savvy enough to be at the top of Google for their keywords. As of January 2017, searches for “vote remain,” “vote stay,” “stronger in,” and “Britain stronger in Europe” all give you the official Stronger In website. The same is true of searches for “vote leave” and its website.

Searches for “vote leave” spiked on 23rd May, when Vote Leave released its televised campaign broadcast. From the data, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stronger In didn’t even have a televised campaign broadcast, but they did on 24th May. Searches for “vote leave” also spiked on 7th June, when several newspapers lead with the story that pro-Europe MPs might use a House of Commons vote to keep Britain in the single market.

Those spikes in data aren’t numbers; they are people. Specifically, they are British people who are being directed to a website which is anti-EU and who already have a pretty solid idea of which way they’re going to vote. The aim of both websites is to give them that final push, and the data shows that Vote Leave did this much better. Because we’re not comparing the search terms “should I vote leave?” or “should I vote remain?”

Those are often referred to as “informational” search terms. Or, as Google phrases it, search terms from people who are looking to “know” something. Rather, we’re comparing two “transactional” search terms. Or, as Google phrases it, search terms from people who are looking to “do” something. The data shows, quite clearly, that the thing more searchers want to “do” is “vote leave.” And, in the end, that’s exactly what they did.