One Saturday, I noticed that my pal Nick Charney was getting a lot of buzz on Twitter while speaking at a big conference. In addition to his fearless innovation, Charney is well-known for his hairstyle, long bangs with a flip. I decided to have a little fun with Nick and his fans, and quickly set up a Twitter account for his hair, weaving it into the Twitter conversation around his talk and following several hundred Twitter accounts that advertise that they follow back other Twitter users. In 24 hours, Nick Charney’s hair had more than 500 followers on Twitter.
Twitter following, like many social media metrics, is ridiculously easy to game. Yet, in much mainstream news coverage of political campaigns on Twitter and other social media, numbers of followers are generally the primary metric used to compare candidates.
In the first eight years of my professional career, I worked as an editor and writer for several Northern California newspapers. Today, if I were tasked to analyze social media efforts of politicians, here’s how I would do it:
Quality, Not Quantity
Political analysis and polling is more art form than science – it all comes down to the factors one analyst or another considers important. The key to any good reporting on political use of social media is to state from the outset the factors you are analyzing. After extensive experimentation and practical use of social media, I can say without reservation that quantity of followers is far less important than the quality of those followers, as is the quality of the messages and interaction by a candidate or campaign. On the numbers side, quantity and frequency of messaging is important – too few tweets or other status updates is a recipe for failure, while too many can be a sign of an undisciplined effort.
Broadcast and Conversation
Many political social media users, especially those at higher levels, use the form for broadcast messaging only. On Facebook, does the candidate or campaign allow comments on their wall, and on the messages they post? On Twitter, do they respond to questions from other users? Are they using additional features like Lists that show they are monitoring conversation and followers? A quick way to check for Twitter responsiveness is to search for the user name and see if there are recent questions from followers. Did they get an answer?
Just like most politicians are in broadcast-only mode in social media, it’s also common for staff to handle the messaging and interaction. Is it clear who is doing the tweeting? Extra points for transparency, doubly so if the official or candidate is updating for her or his self.
Any news analysis of political social social media should take into account the whole picture. If a candidate is on Twitter, do they have one active account, or more? Are they also using Facebook? A personal profile, a fan page, or both? Are they blogging, and does that blog have interactive commenting? Do they have a niche social network of their own on Ning or another custom social platform? Are all of these efforts current, and does each have a significant following? Are they all used in similar ways, or are they targeting different niches or needs? Are they geared towards numbers and social media cred, communicating with volunteers, or recruiting new supporters?
Follower counts are generally the key metric used in news stories, and they are a reasonable number to include. Also key are how many other accounts the politician is following, how many status updates they make, how frequent those updates are, and, for Twitter, how many lists they are on.
Understanding Twitter’s “Suggested Users” List
Twitter has a feature called “Suggested Users” that suggests 20 users at random that new members should follow. Analysis has show that inclusion on this list radically increases a member’s following, but also that it fails to proportionally increase the quality of the member’s network. Inclusion on this list is usually the key determining factor whether a politician has thousands of followers or hundreds of thousands.
Gaming Follow Counts
As mentioned in the intro, it is ridiculously easy to game follower counts. On Twitter, it is simply a matter of following back everyone who follows you, or automatically following people who mention keywords, using cheap Web tools. There are also thousands of sites that sell cheap advertising to build followers, and adding followers or Facebook fans through Google and Facebook advertising can also be effective. One easy sign to look for gamed follow counts is generic avatar pictures. On Twitter, does the candidate’s following or follow list show up a bunch of bird silhouettes? Probably not a quality network.
Facebook Profiles vs. Fan Pages
Adding Facebook fans and friends is not alike. With a personal profile, you can simple have a volunteer troll through friends of politicians with similar values and add friends, many of whom will reciprocate. However, Facebook presently limits these accounts to 5,000 “friends.” To add fans to a page, you need volunteers to actively invite their friends to “Like” the page. Or, you can advertise on Facebook asking for likes. Depending on budget, a candidate may target this to certain demographics, but, in another example of the meaningless of numbers alone, a wealthy candidate might tailor a message to the global audience of 400 million Facebook members, asking for friends, likes or followers.
Like for Like
You simple can’t compare a sitting official or a famous candidate to a more grassroots campaign, or a local politician to someone with a larger demographic reach. Unless their social media reach is directly proportional to their electability in the district in question, quantifying reach requires qualitative analysis.
Age of Accounts
It’s important to know how long an official or candidate has been active on a social media channel. For example, many older accounts simply grow in proportion to the network’s own growth. Also, consider whether use has been consistent, and look at growth rates.
Spammers and Kink
Along with the stories about how one politician has more followers than another, newspapers and traditional media just love to write about how a candidate or official is following a bunch of porn accounts. The gotcha story is easy, but it also reveals sloppy social media strategy. Any political social media effort following a bunch of marketing, spam and porn accounts is simply gaming follower counts and automating instead of building a quality network.
The Tool Kit
Twitter, in particular, lends itself to easy analysis through a rich ecosystem of third-party tools. Klout and Grader (Grader also looks at Facebook and blogs) are well-recognized tools for gauging influence, and Twitter Analyzer offers dozens of ways to look at a member’s network.
An Example: Whitman and Brown
Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, and Jerry Brown, former CA governor and former mayor of Oakland, are the respective Republican and Democratic candidates in the open election for CA governor in November 2010. For this quick example, I’m looking simply at their Twitter accounts.
Whitman2010: When Did You Join Twitter? tells me that the Whitman campaign started on February 13, 2009. On Twitter.com, I see that the campaign is following 310 people, has 237,964 followers, and is on 1,583 lists. She has just over 500 tweets to date. A scan of recent tweets suggests that Whitman herself may be tweeting, but most are likely by staff and are broadcast-focused with light interaction.
Historical news coverage tells me that Whitman was a late addition to the Suggested Users list. She has a Klout score of 41 and is characterized by that tool as a “Though Leader.” Grader ranks Whitman at 20,032 of 7,694,703 measured users, with a score of 100.
Twitter Analyzer tells me that only 95,000 of Whitman’s followers are from the U.S. (I’m still looking for a reliable tool to parse location to smaller geographic regions). Her follower growth rate for August is very low. Analyzer has an incredible rich set of tools for digging out information; it tells me, for example, that one of Whitman2010′s Twitter best friends is Mass. Sen. Scott Brown.
JerryBrown2010: Brown’s campaign started Twitter on January 23, 2009. Twitter tells me that Brown is following 853, has 1,106,860 followers, and is on 1,907 lists. He has just under 700 tweets to date, mostly broadcast with light interaction, most of which look like staff tweets.
Brown was an early addition to the SUL. (I personally connected Brown’s campaign to my Twitter network when he had under 1,000 followers, and was at first surprised when I looked back a later in the year to find him at nearly 1 million.) Brown also has a Klout score of 41, and is characterized as a “Persona.” Grader ranks Brown at 17,615, with a score of 100.
Analyzer tells me that just under 410,000 of Brown’s followers are from the U.S. His follower growth rate is actually negative for August; he’s lost nearly 4,000 followers in the last month.
What this quick analysis shows me is that Whitman and Brown are closely matched on Twitter, despite Brown’s huge lead in followers. Without further analysis of recent followers, Whitman’s low follower growth rate vs. Brown’s decline actually indicates that she has moved into the lead in terms of the effectiveness of her Twitter efforts.
Adriel Hampton is a former newspaperman and producer of the Gov 2.0 Radio podcast. He is a Klout Persona with a score of 49 and is presently ranked 14,349/100 by Grader. Follow him on Twitter.