Four Steps for Effective Social Media Monitoring in Politics

New guest author! Steve Kleine is the Principal at Ensomo, a social media monitoring and analysis firm, and in the piece below he introduces us to the basic concepts campaigns need to know about this ever-more-important aspect of online communications.

Four Steps for Effective Social Media Monitoring in Politics

By Steve Kleine, Ensomo

Social media monitoring (SMM) is rapidly becoming a hot topic as campaigns and elected officials realize just how much unbiased data is being churned out about their candidates every day across the social web. The social media universe truly has become the world’s largest focus group. Many campaigns are taking advantage of this huge mass of data to not only communicate with their current and potential supporters, but also to gain significant intelligence on potential voters.

For example, social media data can provide insight on how a particular speech or debate was received. Did it increase the number of positive mentions? Are people understanding the messages behind it? Other examples of the benefits of a solid SMM plan include measuring how a candidate is perceived on current issues, finding new issues before they get covered in traditional media and seeing if a new ad campaign is making an impact.

SMM is a daunting task, but a well thought out strategy can help your campaign find the best program for your unique needs. Here are a few steps to help you get started.

The difference between monitoring and engagement

Too often people think “social media monitoring” and “social media engagement” are the same thing, or at least should be done by the same person. While they do overlap a bit, they should be treated as two separate tasks. Monitoring consists of:

  • Surveying the social media landscape
  • Analyzing the data
  • Reporting the results back to the campaign

Engagement includes all outbound social media communications as well as joining existing conversations found during the monitoring process. Larger campaigns should have different people (or groups of people) assigned to each task. The people tasked with engagement should focus on cranking out great content and responding quickly to social media communications directed at the campaign. Those that are doing the monitoring need to have the time to really dig deep into the data, analyze it thoroughly and provide presentation-ready reports that can be delivered to all senior level staffers and the candidate themselves. Many tools have a built in workflow element that allows the person who is doing the monitoring to quickly forward a conversation that needs a response to the person doing the engagement.

Decide what you want to monitor

While this seems obvious, I’ve seen programs in which an organization would shell out the money for a SMM tool and hand it off to a junior staffer without any input from senior staff [Ed. note: a classic problem in online communications in general]. Instead, a solid SMM program needs to be strategically thought out by senior staff with input from all parts of the organization. With today’s tools you can run numerous queries, allowing a campaign to go way beyond just looking at the number of mentions it is receiving compared to its competitors. You should build a core set of queries around issues that will always be important to the campaign, such as “jobs,” “healthcare,” or “Afghanistan.” These should be run daily. Changes in volume, sentiment and emotion should be measured over time.

Conversations and mentions on social media channels are often harbingers of new trends, so ad hoc queries should be added as needed when new issues come up. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. The protest did not receive widespread media coverage until almost a week after it started, but the social media universe was filled with chatter from the get-go. After two weeks, there were more online conversations about it than any of the GOP candidates. On October 2nd, there were almost a half a million mentions, more than Sarah Palin received in the entire month of September. See below for a comparison of mentions of Mitt Romney (red) and Occupy Wall Street (blue) from mid-September through early October:

Chart: Occupy Wall Street vs Mitt Romney

Choosing the right Social Media Monitoring tool

Many campaigns still rely on free blog monitoring tools like Google Alerts and free Twitter monitoring tools like Topsy. For smaller campaigns, where there will not be a huge amount of data to go through, these tools could be a way to glean some insight from the social media universe. However, you get what you pay for. Google Alerts, for example, can bring back a huge amount of irrelevant content. Topsy has the opposite problem in that it does not bring back enough results, relevant or not. Then, there is the time it takes to go through the data to look for trends and build a custom-made report. It is also very hard to manually monitor the many other social media sites out there such as YouTube, Flickr, and social bookmarking sites such as StumbleUpon.

Some of the middle-of-the-road tools cover multiple types of social media. They can offer a bit more relevance and some basic analysis which might be enough for some campaigns; however, the data will still need to be cleaned of irrelevant results (“false positives”). Many of these tools base their results on Google or other news aggregators and do not offer much of an algorithm to properly analyze the text. If you are trying to do a sentiment analysis, for instance, these tools are only about 20-50% accurate, meaning there is more labor going through the data and manually evaluating the sentiment and influence. Many will limit you as to how far back in time you can search. Historical social media data can provide great insight into trends and opinions and can help shape overall social media strategy. While they have their limitations, these tools run from $100-$500 a month, making them more attractive to campaigns on a tight budget.

We are seeing a new class of SMM tools start to gain traction in the market. They crawl the web with their own technology and add in a very complex layer of logic. They are able to not only analyze words and their relationship to other words in a sentence, but truly understand the concepts behind them. They understand that a tweet “I am voting for Obama, I hate Romney,” is positive toward Obama and negative to Romney. Less sophisticated tools would label the Tweet as negative towards both candidates. By adding this technology layer over a proprietary search engine designed specifically to crawl social media, they can pull in results that are up to 90+% accurate, even without creating long Boolean search strings. They also are able to sample large data sets and indentify who are truly influencers, weeding out spam and other irrelevant results. These tools start around $2500-$3500 a month and go up with more users and in some cases with the number of queries. Because of the cost and complexity of these tools, many campaigns outsource SMM to an agency that can put multiple clients on the same platform to reduce the technology cost.

Decide on the process

As I mentioned above, many campaigns and agencies task junior level staffers who have many other duties to monitor social media. When things get busy it is all too easy to ignore SMM and its many benefits. A well thought-out process will identify a senior staffer to “own” SMM. This SMM champion will be the one who will connect with the rest of the campaign to get input on what types of data would be of most use. They will also report back with the results of the analysis.

Many campaigns are realizing that SMM is now a vital part of their market research that requires resources they may not have. Outsourcing to a PR firm, ad agency or social media firm may be a better use of resources, but make sure a senior agency staffer is heavily involved and can deliver reports that are ready to be presented to the senior staff and the candidate themselves.

Without a doubt, any type of SMM will cost time and money. If you take the time to discover what level is right for your campaign and make sure an experienced marketer is involved, a well thought out SMM program will bring a huge amount of benefit to a campaign.

Steve Kleine has been in the communications industry for 15 years and remembers the days when media monitoring consisted of tediously counting physical news and magazine clips and then pasting them into clip book. To this day he is dangerous with a glue stick.

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