Algorithmic giant TikTok is manipulated well by some parties and half-heartedly by others. Screenshot/TikTok

Labour is spending significantly less on social media advertising than other parties – but it’s not just the spend that’s affecting the party’s reach.

Facebook’s ad library report shows Labour spent less than a third of what Act has on ads on the platform last week.

From September 2-8, the National Party spent $15,548 on Facebook ads, Labour only $9,154.

Meanwhile, Act spent a whopping $29,664 and the Greens a healthy $11,839.

Figures show that for the campaign so far, National and Act have received close to $2.25 million and $1.6 million overall in large donations (more than $20,000) respectively.

Further left, the Greens have amassed close to $587,000, with $609,000 for Labour.

So what does that mean in terms of what we see on our phones?

A couple of Labour and National’s active ads have over 400,000 ‘impressions’, whereas Act’s current active ad with the most impressions is only in the 60-70,000 range – surprising, considering their ad spending.

Impressions is marketing speak for number of times the content is displayed on social media, whereas ‘reach’ is the total number of unique individuals who see the content.

Social media expert Oli Garside says the reason a small party such as Act would have lower impressions could be because the party’s ads are more targeted, as opposed to the more centre parties which are casting a wider, broader net.

“They may have a low number of people reached, because they were using an advertising objective that targets a smaller, more select group of users, but delivers them ads multiple times to try and drive an action or make them remember them.”

Garside is surprised at how much of a war chest the two parties on the right have accrued in donations compared to the left.

But, he says, it’s not just about the ad spend, but how language is used. 

“You can have all the best targeting in the world, and you can have all the media spend. If your ads suck, they’re not going to get traction.”

The algorithmic giant of short-form video platform TikTok is manipulated well by some parties and half-heartedly by others.

National’s account is slick, understanding the language of TikTok and posting consistently to a following of more than 54,000.

That number dwarfs Labour’s meagre following of just 1545, although after some recent attention, the party appears to be making more of an effort.

“With that bigger discrepancy, I would probably wager, and there’s no way I can really tell from this, but I would wager that National are pouring a hell of a lot more money into TikTok than Labour will be,” Garside said.

Dr Edward Elder, political communications expert from the University of Auckland, says engagement has to begin early on TikTok to create a following and increase reach.

“One of the ways to get reach is to engage more and engage earlier, they only just started their TikTok page two weeks ago," he says. 

“The way that you get engagement on social media, the way you actually increase your reach and therefore increase your impressions, is to engage more, engage consistently and engage early.

“Once you get to the point, like now, where Labour wants you to listen to them, you are already part of the eco-system, so to speak, and they haven’t done that.

“So, they’re starting in a bad place."

Ekant Veer, professor of marketing at the University of Canterbury, says succeeding on TikTok is about understanding what works and harnessing that to gather more and more engagement.

"Labour hasn't used it at all, really.

"And that's really surprising in my mind, while the Greens, Act, National, obviously, are really doubling down in this area and getting some traction.”

Act, whose account has 12,200 followers, understands this by using what works – David Seymours face – and sticking with it, posting videos of him telling policy-related dad jokes straight to camera.

The TikTok algorithm is a highly-intelligent computer programme that curates what you see according to your own interest and engagement on your feed.

Though the specific way the app works is not known, it's understood that, among many other things, it reads how long you watch a video before scrolling on.

The programme then adds that duration to your user profile, which influences which videos are then shown to you – continuously.

The app also has its own language made up of meme-like trends, referring to itself in a way that uses inside jokes only someone plugged in would understand.

National's account optimises this well, posting videos featuring the trend of soothing silicon sand being cut, a visual equivalent of white noise that holds the attention, sharing a split screen with leader Christopher Luxon making fun of the Greens' tax policy.

The party, or at least its marketing team, understands that in the wild west of TikTok, attention equals currency.

The more the clip is viewed the more it is shown to more people, creating a snowball effect of engagement.

As expected, the youthful Greens (13,600 followers) also have a savvy, meme-y yet earnest approach to their TikTok content.

Veer says whichever way you lean, you may still see content you disagree with – and reacting to it negatively still boosts its engagement.

"What we do know is that stuff that elicits a really strong emotion, whether that's positive or negative, actually draws more attention and engagement,” he says.

"Let's say you're someone that's very firmly against co-governance as a topic; TikTok might send you or link you to pro co-governance stuff because not only do people scroll past that, usually what they do is they stop, watch it, and then hate-comment.”

That counts as engagement: "Even though it's negative engagement, strong negative emotions will actually encourage stronger engagement.”

He isn't sure whether TikTok is doing this intentionally but says it would make sense.

"TikTok's never going to reveal this. TikTok's never going to tell us how their business model works.

And again – this shows how some political parties are way more professional in understanding this.”

The smoothness and the tone of National's TikTok videos is also reminiscent of the successful campaigns of Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison.

"The angles of the cameras are used to look up to Chris Luxon,” he says.

"So, there's an element of strength associated with it. There's a lot of cheering. There's lots of people pointing.

"The campaign is very much to say this is a person of strength, this is a person of leadership, and that was similarly being used in other campaigns and worked really effectively."

Veer says this style of advertising originated with former US President Donald Trump.

"That worked really well and it really tapped into a disenfranchised portion of society who felt the current leadership weren't representing them.

"We need a strong leader to stand up to them.

"And that's kind of been replicated time and time again, and if you look at a couple of the National videos – very, very similar in that sort of stuff,” he said.

However, Edward Elder says it's a reach to suggest National’s imagery of crowds and its campaign launch on TikTok have a MAGA tone.

And that using that kind of imagery is part and parcel for campaign marketing.

“A lot of it is just the case of them being the opposition," he says. 

“It’s more a case of ‘everything tasting like chicken’ – it’s not like [imagery of] large crowds at a campaign launch is new.

“So, I don’t exactly get that."

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