Examining Social Media In Federal Politics

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I read with interest an article in today’s Globe and Mail by Eric Grenier which discusses federal politics and the use of social media. In the article, Mr. Genier concludes that Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals hold a much bigger presence on Facebook and Twitter over Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. And given that the next federal election will be fought in the social media realm, this could give them a much needed edge.

While I agree with Mr. Grenier that understanding and utilizing social media is incredibly important in any modern campaign, I don’t agree with his assessment of where the Parties stand.  I should disclose that I am a supporter of the Conservative Party, but as a social media consultant, the analysis of the data does not change.  Here are a few reasons why I disagree with Mr. Grenier:

1.  It Is All About the Leaders

Mr. Grenier lumps each party’s caucus together and totals to the number of followers on Facebook and Twitter to determine who is “winning” the social media war of popularity.  And the Liberal Caucus wins.  But when you look at the individual leaders, it’s a different story.  Prime Minister Harper has more followers on both Facebook (39,083 likes) and Twitter (81,768 followers) than Michael Ignatieff (32,862 and 53,811 respectively).

I put much more stock in the stats of the individual leaders than I do of the caucus members.  Any politico will tell you that an individual candidate is worth roughly 2-5% of the vote.  The Leader and the Party is worth much, much more.  So, it seems that Mr. Ignatieff has more work to do.  In fact, I would be much more troubled by the Facebook number than the Twitter number:  following someone on Twitter (where Ignatieff is closer) does not suggest support; “liking” a Page of Facebook does.

2.  Mentions Are Incredibly Important

While it is easy to size up a candidate by looking at the totals for a given politician, the “buzz” around them online (how often they are talked about in an article, blog post, tweet, etc) is even more important.    Yes, Mr. Grenier is correct when he says it is not surprising that Prime Minister Harper leads the pack in mentions, given that he is the Prime Minister.  But the gulf between Harper and Ignatieff is something worth examining.

In the recent Toronto municipal election, I conducted an analysis of each of the candidates’ mentions and found that the eventual winner, Rob Ford, completely dominated the discussion.  In fact, even though Ford did not have as many followers on Twitter or Facebook as his rivals, he was mentioned four times more often on Twitter than his closest competitor, George Smitherman.  Ford was the story, plain and simple.  He dominated the agenda online and offline.

3.  Sentiment Means Something

Mr. Grenier does not provide an analysis of the mentions he cites for each of the Parties and their leaders.  Prime Minister Harper leads in mentions in news article and blogs, but is that positive or negative?  It would have been helpful to know the percentages for each. Whether the general discussion is supportive towards a candidate or negative helps put things into context.  Former Governor Sarah Palin has a high number of mentions.

4.  The Social Media Discount

In general terms, I give the Conservatives somewhat of a discount on social media.  Their supporters tend to be older and less likely to use social networks such as Facebook – and especially Twitter.    In other words, their support within the social media landscape is often underrepresented when measured against national popular support.

Given that reality, it is even more impressive that the Conservatives are able to hold their own in terms of supporters and followers within social media.

My Advice

Based on my initial analysis, I think the Conservatives have a lot to be positive about.  While they may lose the overall horse race (# of followers, etc), the Prime Minister is well positioned online.  I also think the Liberals could exploit some of their online strengths in the coming months.  Here’s how:

Conservatives
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  • PM Harper clearly dominates any space he’s in – he’ll get coverage.  Flood channels with as much content as possible.
  • As Mr. Grenier mentioned, Harper’s “Sweet Caroline” moment had a lot of interest online.  This is a great way to personalize him in the minds on Canadians.
  • Conservative MPs are on Twitter, but they aren’t using is to their full advantage.  MPs should be encouraged to talk about government policy and get feedback from constituents as much as possible.

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Liberals
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  • The flipside of the Conservatives – the Liberal caucus are clearly a strength online.  They should use that strength to push Ignatieff and the Party.
  • The Liberal Party has three times as many followers on Facebook than the Conservative Party does.   The Party brand resonates; it is important to use it to it’s full advantage.
  • No Opposition Leader can compete against a Prime Minister or Premier for mainstream media attention.  That’s why I would give alternatives to the press – blogs, niche websites, podcasts, etc as much direct access and content as possible to try and build buzz in other ways.

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