Winning a second Scottish referendum? It’s still all about persuasion.

By Ian Dommett, former Marketing Director, Yes Scotland and Dr Iain Black, who has studied extensively the marketing strategies used during the Scottish Independence referendum

In the near two years following the Independence referendum a number of articles have been published on how any second referendum might be won. But the majority of articles, the most recent in Bella Caledonia being an example, have focussed on a political narrative for success. But this, as with many of the others, ignored the most obvious fact from September 2014: the Yes side did not persuade enough people that an independent Scotland was a good thing for them and their families.

Perhaps the only people who spend more time than politicians trying to persuade people are marketers and we are good at it - who do you think made you want to buy something you get for free out of a tap? And while persuasion was the starting point for the Yes Scotland campaign it was in the end overtaken by a political narrative. And that’s when it lost.

So how can it do it better this time?

Here are 11 lessons from the last campaign that have to be delivered far more successfully to have any chance of gaining independence for Scotland. Some of this is blindingly obvious, some of it you may disagree with, and some things are changing as we speak and will continue to evolve over the months ahead. All of them represent lessons though that must be learnt and at the heart of them all are two vital elements: data and insight.

1.    Have your campaign ready before you launch

In a perfect world you wouldn’t call a referendum until you knew you were going to win easily. At the launch of Yes Scotland there was no data on what the electorate thought and intended to do and it took a year to get to a position where we were campaigning effectively. Before the next referendum is called it must know exactly how and where referendum success will come from, using the vast amounts of audience data gathered in the two years leading to 2014 and research undertaken since.  This is the heart of the matter.

Yes Scotland did not use audience data nearly well enough, even though it had been a cornerstone of the SNP’s previous election successes.  Audience data must be the bedrock of any future campaign, connecting voting intentions to a deep understanding of the voters.

Before the next campaign starts, it must also decide how to best to organise nationally and locally and have then implemented this structure.  It should be campaigning in local groups organised around areas that matter to people not politicians - Leith, Forfar, Selkirk, Inverness and down further into local areas- Pollock, Stockbridge, Stobswell for instance - not constituencies. 

It needs to develop clear plans both national and locally - something groups could be doing now.  The campaign at all levels needs to ensure it is organised and prepared before it starts.

This includes the sector and interest groups where powerful voices are required more in those parts of society that didn’t vote Yes last time round.  It should also be recognised that the people running groups last time are not necessarily the people who should be organising them next time.

2.    The campaign must be a social campaign, not a political one

The political landscape in Scotland is changing rapidly but this does not change the fact that it is too easy for opponents of independence, and the media, to pigeonhole the campaign as a political thing. “Alex Salmond’s separatists” might have made way for “Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP” but despite her undoubted popularity, she still does not command 60% support in Scotland. This must be above party politics and not easily dismissed as an SNP obsession.

3.    It’s far easier for the ‘no change’ side to win

Perhaps this is happening in a ‘Brexit’ world? This makes the second referendum so exciting and potentially winnable: the risk is in now voting ‘No’ perhaps?  But just because independence supporters see it that way, it cannot be assumed this is how “soft no’s” interpret this Brexit world.

4.    You must have some supportive media

Is this happening? Are Scottish newspapers about to switch sides and support an independent Scotland? Headlines are the currency of the campaign, whether we like it or not and recent signs suggest that everything may be up for grabs.

Perhaps more media, existing in a sector facing ever declining sales, will realise that supporting independence mirrors the perspective of their audience and makes good commercial sense.

5. Identify the key indicator audiences that have to be convinced

Victory will come from persuading those in the 55% to change their minds. Who are the people who can be persuaded to vote for independence next time and how they will move to this position? What are their worries, hopes, and fears?  What do they believe about independence and its consequences, why didn’t they vote yes last time?  What are their attitudes and values, how do they view themselves and what are their emotions surrounding Britain, Scotland and independence.  Where do they live in your areas? What is your contact plan?

6.    Spend most your time with undecided or soft negative audiences

We spent far too much time last time talking to people who had already decided to vote Yes and only realised too late that we had not spent enough time persuading ‘soft no’ voters. This is understandable. It’s easier to spend time with those who agree with us.  By mapping our locales we should be able to focus on those neighbourhoods that we have to persuade in order to win.

7.  Make the benefits real and concrete

Last time we did a great job of building a movement based on hopes of prosperity, fairness, social justice and a greener country. 

We failed to turn these abstract ideas into concrete ones.  We need much more detailed planning which shows that as Edinburgh, for example, becomes a real capital, what jobs will be created by the influx of embassies?  What governmental departments will be relocated from England to Glasgow and Inverness and how many jobs will that bring? 

Where could they be located?  How many additional local service jobs could that create?  How will we spend the money saved on Trident - will it be used to improve the housing in the Raploch?  Each town, city, community and person should be able to feel the benefits of independence. 

8.     Win the big arguments early

Many of the big arguments from 2014 have been totally undermined by the EU referendum campaign and subsequent events.  The next campaign must consider every issue that was used against independence and get the most authoritative and supportable response ready. Even now the issue of oil prices allows people to question Scotland’s economic potential, so should we be presenting data on the Scottish economy both with and without oil? 

The opponents of independence have already shown their hand by focussing on and repeating the GERs figures claiming Scotland is running a 15 billion pound deficit.  How can these be discredited, recalculated or reframed?

Vigorous (but predictable) questions will be raised about whatever currency option is proposed – are the answers ready? Does Scotland have a cast iron guarantee about EU membership?  Has a clear answer to the myth that independence will cut us off from our biggest trading partner been developed and tested with the appropriate audience?

Nothing had been prepared when the first campaign launched and it all had to be developed as the campaign unfolded. As a consequence the Yes campaign spent most of the time on the back foot, responding to Better Together rather than presenting a clear, believable vision of a new Scotland.

9.    Negative myths will beat positive truths

Last time, “myths” about currency, the EU, pensions, borders, even roaming charges hurt Yes. Will these make a re-appearance and how should they be dealt with?

Ultimately all of these myths are about the fear and unpredictability of change and the comfort of the status quo.  What new myths will emerge in a post Brexit Indy ref, how can the voters be given the confidence to view them as minor issues to be sorted out by a dynamic, self confident country rather than being seen as major concerns that they fear? 

10. Nothing beats face-to-face conversations

What the volunteers in the Yes campaign did more often than any political campaign has done previously, was to hold conversations in homes, street corners, work places, pubs and in thousands of venues across Scotland. It needs to do this again but we need to start by ensuring we are listening and not making any assumptions about what people think and feel. 

The more we listen during our conversations, the more likely it is we will say the things that will persuade the other person or even just open them to seeing things in a different light. 

We need to have conversations, not hold debates that we try to “win”.

11. Social media success is no indicator of outcome

Social media will not win the next referendum. Yes triumphed online last time but the referendum was lost. Social media is useful as a means of rallying and bolstering support but it is also a medium that is all too easy to use to antagonise and argue with those whose minds we need to change.  Too many people spent too much time arguing with opponents online, too often becoming rude and offensive. No one ever buys a car from a sales person who calls them stupid or gullible or uncaring yet too many Yes supporters thought they could say this to No supporters as a way of persuading them to vote yes.  Too many SNP supporters thought they could rubbish Labour online and then ask Labour supporters for their vote.   Someone criticising the party you believe in and vote for is a criticism of you- just like a complement about your home is a complement of you. One of these positions is a strong basis for persuasion, the other is not.

So the advice is clear: get off the screen and into the lounges and meet rooms, onto the doorsteps and street corners and first listen and then talk respectfully to those we need to change their minds.

Yes has the experience of getting so close last time, and so recently, it must also remember it lost, listen to why it lost and understand that the next Scottish

Independence referendum will be the last… unveiled outlining how to win next indyref campaign.20794