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Political marketing and social media between communication and consensus. An analysis of the Italian landscape

13/02/2023 Divulgatory Research Download PDF

Salvini first on followers (9.4m), Meloni engagement highest on IG (1.65%)
Exploit of Conte on TikTok, Letta few followers but high engagement

  • With about 60 percent of the world’s population active on social, political marketing today is mostly played out on social media (over 1 billion new users in the last 3 years);
  • In Italy, party leaders perform better on social than the parties themselves, and it is the divisive leaders who follow the friend-enemy logic that gain the most followers;
  • Matteo Salvini is the Italian politician with the most followers (9.4 million), followed by Giuseppe Conte (7 million 83 thousand), while in third place is Giorgia Meloni (7 million);
  • Giorgia Meloni on IG has fewer followers than Conte and Salvini, but the highest engagement: 1.65% vs. Conte’s 0.74% and Salvini’s 0.76%;
  • Both Conte (95 percent) and Meloni (90 percent) have Instagram profiles populated by real users, while the Carroccio leader has only 47 percent likely real profiles (Phlanx data);
  • Conte has the highest engagement rate on TikTok (14.35), thus targeting the voters of the future, unlike Letta who focuses on more party-centered communication, as opposed to leader-centered;
  • Bulgarian (4.3 percent) and Romanian (4.3 percent) followers for Salvini, or Chinese for Meloni, and Jamaican (10.7 percent) for Conte, are telltale of potential fake profiles;
  • Among the three leading candidates in the regional elections in Lombardy, Fontana has the most followers but a lower level of engagement on Instagram than Majorino and Moratti;
  • The low engagement on some social platforms depends mainly on the one-way communication of the leaders, who are not active in responding regularly to people’s social comments.

Rome, Feb. 14, 2023. Rome Business School published the study, “Political Marketing and Social Media between Communication and Consensus. An analysis of the Italian landscape.”

The research by Valerio Mancini, Director of Rome Business School’s Research Center, and Alessio Postiglione, Program Director of Rome Business School’s International Online Master in Communication Management, studies the use of political marketing in Italy, analyzing the strategies of the main political leaders – Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi, Conte, Letta – and their communication on social media, also providing a specific focus on the social data of the candidates in the regional elections in Lombardy.

Political marketing is a fundamental part of political life, allowing political actors to convey their messages very quickly by adapting them to any context. As the study reports, out of a total world population of 8 billion, 5.44 billion people use cell phones, accounting for 68 percent of the world’s population. In fact, 64.4 percent of the world’s population is now online, among them there are 4.76 billion social users, accounting for just under 60 percent of the world’s population, and the global total number of users has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the pandemic: more than 1 billion new users in the last 3 years.

Since the 2000s, the advent of social media has revolutionized political communication; social has become a communication and mobilization channel capable of influencing and engaging voters.

For Valerio Mancini, “politicians speak directly to voters, bypassing professional mediators, dropping the distinction between the public and private spheres, increasing polarization, with a progressive political transformation in a majoritarian sense, witnessed by the crisis of parliamentary systems and their ‘majoring.'”

Political communication is no longer simply about territorial and image-based electoral strategy, but is increasingly embracing digital media and in particular social media, which have become key in electoral campaigning.

“The success of social media is closely linked to the personalization of politics, with charismatic and divisive leaders, capable of igniting passions, mobilizing the vote, which is no longer directed toward parties; mobile and liquid voting, which voters increasingly express under the effect of emotional marketing. The vote thus becomes contestable at every election, and the more leaders ignite passions, the shorter their parabola seems to be,” notes Alessio Postiglione.

The landscape in Italy

In analyzing the Italian political landscape with reference to social media, the study focuses on the social performance of political leaders Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi (center-right coalition, in government) and Conte (M5s) and Letta (Pd) for the opposition; the platforms considered are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

This analysis shows that, from a quantitative point of view, leaders perform better than parties, with a small number of politicians competing on social and with better results from divisive leaders who follow the friend-enemy logic. More in detail, Matteo Salvini is the Italian politician with the highest number of followers totaling, on the four social platforms, a total fandom of 9.4 million, followed by Giuseppe Conte who touches 7 million 83 thousand followers while in third place is Giorgia Meloni, with 7 million.

On the other hand, however, the poor performance on social media of Letta and the Pd does not reflect an equal low electoral response in the country demonstrating that “Believing that social dynamics do not influence real politics is certainly wrong, but equally believing that social media is a faithful mirror is a perceptual distortion” – says Alessio Postiglione – in fact, from the qualitative analysis carried out, which measures the engagement of social profiles, different indications are obtained. Among them, for example, the low engagement of the strongest social profile of all (Salvini’s) would reflect the negative performance of the last elections.

However, it remains difficult to compare Letta’s profile with the other leaders, because the Pd relies more on party-centered communication than leader-centered communication, partly due to the fact that the Nazareno secretaries last less than the competing parties and, in the present case, it is already known that Letta will leave his post to the winner of the next primaries. As a result, Letta has far fewer followers than the other leaders surveyed (just 100,623) but has a good engagement rate, particularly on Instagram (2.20 percent). In short, Letta pursues a different strategy: few but good. Surely, however, elections are won with votes, and reaching so few voters, albeit with a high level of engagement, risks being counterproductive.

It turns out, therefore, that Letta’s strategy is very different to Conte’s: the analysis done through Phlanx on Conte’s TikTok profile notes an engagement index of 14.35 percent, outperforming Salvini (4.50 percent), Meloni (4.13 percent) and Berlusconi (3.80 percent). This figure shows how the M5s staff is focusing on the electoral social of the future. Because it is clear that although the very young, who are the most active group on this social (13/16 years old), cannot vote now, in a few years, they can become an electorate at the disposal of the Pentastate leader.

Considering another platform, both Conte (95 percent) and Meloni (90 percent) have Instagram profiles populated by real users, while the Carroccio leader has only 47 percent of plausibly real profiles (Phlanx data), “The telltale sign that his profile growth may have been doped by trolls or fake followers to inflate vanity metrics that, precisely, in elections, risk remaining only vanity.” For all three leaders, Italy is only the second country of origin of followers, reflecting their good internationality. Bulgarian (4.3 percent) and Romanian (4.3 percent) followers for Salvini, or Chinese for Meloni, and Jamaican (10.7 percent) for Conte, on the other hand, are indicators of potential fake profiles.

Although the analysis highlights how political communication is increasingly developing according to the dynamics inherent in emotional communication (with the best performance offered by TiKTok and the worst by Facebook), the data analyzed show that the main reason for the low engagement of some platforms is due to the lack of response from leaders.

“While in the case of mayors or even local public utilities, profiles are more responsive to the solicitations of citizen comments, national leaders tend toward one-way communication that contradicts the spirit of social, especially Facebook where commentary is the defining element.”

So, emotional political marketing, rise of new social platforms but also inability of politicians to use them properly. This consideration is also confirmed by the analysis carried out on the Instagram profiles of the above-mentioned leaders: in absolute numbers, the leader remains in fact Salvini (2.2 million followers vs. Conte’s 1.8 million and Meloni’s 1.5 million), but the leader with the fewest followers on Instagram, Giorgia Meloni, is actually the one with the highest engagement (1.65 percent vs. Conte’s 0.74 percent and Salvini’s 0.76 percent). “It follows, that the most solid profile from a qualitative point of view is that of the leader of FdI, as the elections prove moreover,” Postiglione says.

A particular focus: the Lombardy Region

Finally, the research presents some interesting data on the Instagram profiles of the three main candidates for the February 2023 regional political elections in Lombardy: Attilio Fontana, Raffaele Majorino and Letizia Moratti. Fontana has the highest number of followers (101.7k) partly due to the media impact of the pandemic that saw, in the February-March 2020 period, the Lombardy Region, and in particular its president, at the center of the main national news. In second place is Majorino (12.2k) and in last place is Moratti (3.6k with a majority of male followers) who, despite being a longtime politician, has not invested in Instagram’s communication potential over the years. Fontana’s large fanbase compared to his competitors, however, left no doubt about his ability to win the regionals, as has since happened. In contrast, however, although Fontana has the largest number of followers, in the ranking related to the “engagement level” of the three main candidates, he is in third place, with an engagement rate of 0.34 percent. At the top of this ranking we have the PD MEP, Pierfrancesco Majorino, with an engagement rate of 3.22 percent, followed by the former mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti (1.90 percent).

This analysis thus shows how much the impact of marketing on politics has grown in recent years: the world of politics has realized that it is essential to use marketing both as a tool for communicating with voters and as a means of identifying and achieving electoral goals.

“Political marketing has grown a lot in Italy in recent years, and the role of new technologies is unquestionable. In general, however, the leaders analyzed have a tendency not to adequately use the potential of the web. Finally, there is a transformation of politics from a place of confrontation to an ‘echo chamber’ of polarized fan bases, which raises more than one question about the democratic quality of this revolution,” Postiglione concludes.