Labour targets TikTok microinfluencers ahead of election

<span>Labour has appointed a dedicated employee to work with influencers and seed positive messages about Keir Starmer’s party on TikTok and Instagram.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Labour has appointed a dedicated employee to work with influencers and seed positive messages about Keir Starmer’s party on TikTok and Instagram.Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Labour has appointed a dedicated employee to work with influencers and seed positive messages about Keir Starmer’s party on TikTok and Instagram, as the UK’s political parties prepare to target “microinfluencers” during the general election campaign.

During previous British elections, political parties often asked big-name celebrities to send a supportive tweet or attempted to win over YouTubers with millions of followers. But this election, the focus is shifting from a top-down approach towards winning over more “authentic” influencers with smaller but loyal followings.

The intention, according to political campaigners and digital marketing consultants, is to cut through to niche audiences hooked on scrolling through videos on their phones.

“It’s less about finding people with a million followers. It’s more about finding authentic people who talk about an issue and can deliver a good message,” said one campaigner.

Labour candidates say the party has been offering training to produce influencer-style content themselves, circumventing a dying local news industry. Candidates are now being promised support from HQ in wooing influencers, with the party recently hiring a dedicated creator outreach manager – a standard role in many private-sector advertising campaigns.

The party did not return a request for comment but pro-Labour influencers are likely being offered support, updates on policies, and access to politicians during the general election campaign.

The policy shows how political parties are increasingly shifting resources away from wooing political journalists in a bid to directly reach audiences who are not consuming traditional news outlets. Political parties also believe influencers are more trustworthy than politicians and some media outlets.

Marco Ricci from influencer agency Takumi said this reflected how consumption habits have changed since the 2019 general election, with people spending hours a day on apps such as TikTok.

He said: “This is where people are now. There are huge parts of the population who are inaccessible through TV and radio. The big advantage of influencer marketing is you can be very laser-focused on who you’re going after.”

Microinfluencers also benefit from the way social media algorithms operate in 2024, where large follower counts are increasingly less important than an ability to make engaging content.

Thomas Walters, of digital influencer agency Billion Dollar Boy, said it made sense for political parties to target TikTok as voters increasingly switch off traditional media outlets. “Gen Z are glued to their phones and get a lot of news from TikTok. They also get a lot of opinions from creators,” he said.

But he added it was wrong to think of this as a youth voter policy, with influencer content increasingly reaching all age groups. He said: “Linear TV is declining rapidly, it’s a shift in eyeballs and it’s [an] algorithm thing … The breadth and depth of audiences now is a lot greater than in 2019.”

The challenge for the UK’s political parties is how to balance the reward of working with supportive influencers with the risk of causing a backlash by being perceived as inauthentic. A botched attempt to reach out to an influencer could result in private messages being made public and negative headlines, meaning parties have to accept a degree of risk when offering access.

The Conservatives have struggled in this area due to the toxicity of their brand among younger voters. One video featuring Rishi Sunak and the food influencers TopJaw was deleted within minutes after a slew of negative comments from their audience.

The prime minister had more success with a series of interviews with personal financial Instagram influencers in Downing Street around the time of the spring budget, where his announcements on free childcare and national insurance cuts landed better with an audience already looking for financial tips.

Labour’s policy on Israel’s invasion of Gaza has also been strongly criticised by many younger online audiences, creating a potential risk for any content creators who want to align themselves with Starmer’s party.

Yet there is one Rubicon that is yet to be crossed in UK political content: paying influencers to make content. In the USA, political campaigns think nothing of handing over money in return for supportive content by small-follower TikTok or Instagram accounts.

Although there are no laws banning political parties from doing the same in the UK, British advertising rules require paid social media promotions to be labelled as adverts – meaning any paid partnership is likely to look inauthentic.

Walters predicted British people would not react well to influencers taking cash from political parties: “People want to feel that the person promoting the cause is genuinely engaged in the cause – not taking a paycheck to do it. But if people are gifted an experience to have their travel paid for to visit a factory with Keir Starmer, then disclosing that is fine.”

Another influencer agency boss described paid political work as “high-risk, high-reward work if you can get it”. They said political parties can be dream clients because they have “no idea of value” but the risk of reputational damage to the agency and the influencer is high.

Ricci said the trick is to flood the zone with noise and try to see what works, rather than focus on a few high-profile collaborations: “It’s about creating a cross-platform noise. You need a snowball of momentum that’s continuous and constant.”

He said influencer content only works if the public believes an endorsement is legitimate – and he predicted this would become an issue during the election: “You want real voters, you want real people. What’s the difference between an authentic endorsement and deceptive manipulation?”