In a world where everyone is their own publisher on social media, the conventional wisdom that “content is king” is simply incomplete. When it comes to advocacy and political campaigns, we must understand how our audience is talking about our issues and candidates before we know what to share on our social media platforms. Just as we would struggle jumping into a conversation at a party without knowing what was already said, developing engaging campaign messages is difficult, if not impossible, without knowing how people are already talking about your issue(s). That is why social media content analysis is important to any campaign.
To understand how people think about issues and candidates, it is not only important to analyze how they respond to posts on your social media channels, but it is equally, if not more important, to analyze what they are saying on their own across social media. How people respond to a campaign or organization’s posts on its own Facebook page and Twitter channels is certainly useful information, but if you want to understand what people think—what lenses they use to look at the world, how they prioritize issues and why—you need to start by looking at what they are saying unprompted by your messages. And then you need to know what people are saying in response to them. This more complete picture of how people are talking about your issues and candidates will form the underpinning of your message development and engagement strategy.
Obtrusive and Unobtrusive Analysis
An important and often overlooked concept in research is the difference between obtrusive and unobtrusive observation. Obtrusive observation of people’s behavior—behavior that is deliberately prompted—means that the subject knows they are being studied and measured. They know their actions are being monitored. For example, they know they are taking a survey or they know you are checking the engagement stats on your Facebook page.
We know from past research that awareness of being a subject can bias the results of our research. In many cases, obtrusive research designs influence the behavior we seek to understand. This is known as the Hawthorne Effect, based on an early study by Elton Mayo of factory workers and working conditions at the Hawthorne Works near Chicago. In that study, no matter what the researchers did to modify working conditions—increase or lower temperatures, brighten or dim lights, etc.—worker productivity improved precisely because they were being studied. Because workers were getting attention, no matter the nature of the changing conditions, they reacted positively.
Mayo’s findings did not put an end to such studies. Instead, we learned how to better control for the effect in our analysis. We also developed ways to study subject unobtrusively, so that our research design would not influence the outcomes. These unobtrusive designs complemented obtrusive designs to give us more robust findings that would lead us to a deeper understanding of the phenomena we study.
When it comes to using social media to better understand the opinions of citizens, constituents and voters, we must complement the obtrusive designs analyzing how people interact with our own social media content with unobtrusive designs identifying how people think about issues and candidates unprompted by us.
Why does this matter? Consider a campaign that uses the engagement metrics on its Facebook posts to assess what voters think about an issue. In this design, the campaign can identify which of the issues it mentions on its Facebook page gets most engagement. But this design cannot determine if an issue not discussed on its page would have receive more engagement. Without knowing what issues matter most to the audience, a campaign may end up focusing on less important issues. Despite this, they will still be able to determine which of the less important issues they are discussing are getting the most engagement.
Further, just because an issue, for example immigration reform, discussed on a campaign’s Facebook page gets less engagement than other issues on the page does not mean its audience is uninterested in immigration reform. Another explanation may be that the way the campaign is talking about the issue—the frame it is using—is different from the frame its audience is using to discuss the issue. Had the campaign known how to talk about the issue using the same frame as its audience, they would likely generate much more engagement. If the audience looks at immigration through a family values lens and the campaign is talking about it as a national security issue, the post may fall completely flat.
Social Listening and Social Media Content Analysis
Using social media to understand how people think about an issue takes two basic forms: social listening and social media content analysis. Both are valuable, but they are different. Social listening take place in real-time and facilitates developing rapid response messages. Social media content analysis is a deeper dive that looks at recent historical data over several months to systematically understand what people are saying about an issue.
Used together, social media content analysis and social listening provide a powerful one-two punch. Content analysis allows a campaign to develop messages that will work for all its constituents, because it provides a comprehensive catalogue of the frames and language people already use when discussing your issue(s) on social media. And especially when combined with follow-up focus groups and survey research, it offers the best insights into what messages work.
Social listening allows a campaign to identify opportunities to engage specific people, or groups of people, on social media with the campaign’s message. It provides the ability to respond immediately, engaging people when their mind is freshly focused on the issue(s).
And by combining social listening and social media content analysis as a campaign unfolds, we can identify message traction. We can use these methods to collect data in real-time and analyze them to see the relative rise of your campaign message vis a vis other message frames on Twitter, Facebook Pages, forums (like reddit), Instagram and tumblr. And we can often figure out where people are getting their information by identifying the links they share in their social media comments, allowing us to develop even more effective counter messages and strategies.
Your Audience’s Content is King
Content is indeed king. Good information, be it textual, visual or audible, is the key to effective campaign messaging. But a myopic approach to content will not ensure campaigns have the best possible messages.
Take the 2016 Presidential Election as an example of the importance of understanding what your broader audience is saying. Over the course of the primaries and the general election, the vast majority of the social media buzz about the candidates occurred away from the candidates’ own social media channels and posts. They were driven by news stories and people talking about the candidates among themselves.
The bottom line is that if you want to develop the most effective messaging for your campaign(s), you owe it to yourselves to do the research. The better you understand how people are already talking about your issue(s), the more effective your campaign messages will be. Social media content analysis and social listening are now essential components of any advocacy or electoral campaign. And your audience’s content is king.