Ahead of a busy year in politics, we outline four key tips for political communicators in 2016.
Political campaigning on social media for this year’s US presidential election has already started in earnest and is only set to intensify.
For many candidates in the US presidential race, Facebook remains the primary platform of choice. While most also use Twitter, Instagram, and more, Facebook still allows them to reach the widest pool of potential voters.
We took an in-depth look at the performance of both Republican and Democrat candidates on social last year, and we’ll be returning to these as election season progresses. For now, here are some tips for political communicators using Facebook in 2016.
1) Maximise Engagement Around Major Events
Campaign events are key opportunities for candidates to raise awareness among voters. They also allow for important outreach on social. Our data shows that political candidates generated significant engagement around debates in 2015, with several Republican names using social media to single out contributions in a crowded line-up.
Summaries, excerpts, and live updates from debates allow candidates to actively engage with supporters and potential supporters during the event. This works for those debating as well as opposition figures, as candidates can make reference to their stance or work on a certain issue as it arises in discussion. It’s important to ensure a steady stream of relevant content – bear in mind that some voters may only take note of a candidate after watching a debate, and may therefore seek them out on social to get further information.
Imagery and videos can be used to provide further information on an issue, although a simple written update can also elicit a strong response. Ben Carson, who emerged as an early leader among Republican presidential candidates on social, used his update in the aftermath of the first GOP debate as a means of distancing himself from the heated rhetoric on stage. His post, which also noted an upsurge in followers, was the biggest post by any candidate at the event and earned 463,659 engagements in just three weeks.
2) Embrace Quality over Quantity
While it’s important to maintain consistent activity on social, communicators should be careful not to overdo it. Our data indicates that a heavy posting schedule can sometimes backfire. Posting scores of updates in rapid succession means some will inevitably fall through the cracks, costing the candidate valuable engagement.
Our analysis of the leading Republican figures on social showed markedly different fortunes among the candidates. Donald Trump, for example, posted 53 times over a 30-day period and picked up average engagements of 115,299 per update. It’s arguable that at least part of Trump’s numbers are attributable to the huge media coverage of his campaign, but other figures who posted a greater number of updates nevertheless generated much fewer engagements. For example, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul were especially active during the same period mentioned above. They posted 257 and 282 updates respectively, yet harvested only 9,337 and 4,160 average interactions each on their posts.
In this context, it’s worth prioritising quality over quantity. Focus on what you hope to achieve from each post – is the candidate responding to a topical event or discussion? Is the issue of particular relevance to a certain category of supporters? Use Facebook’s analytics to break down audience responses and tailor each post accordingly. If you’re getting a lot of engagement on native content, for example, consider whether your message can be packaged as an image or a video. Posts can also be targeted (e.g. by age, language, location, interests) to ensure specific updates reach the most relevant and engaged audience.
3) Consider Different Types of Engagement
In our data, “total” Facebook engagement means the combined liked, shares, and comments on a particular post. It’s a good indication of how well a post performs overall, but the individual metrics often provide more meaningful insight. It’s important to consider each metric in gauging audience responses to a post – one update may not have a large number of likes, for example, but it might have picked up a lot of sharing or comments.
Consider our analysis of the two leading Democratic figures on social, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. At a glance, the candidates are fairly even matched, with the actual lead changing month on month (our first blog showed Sanders in the lead, but a follow-up a few weeks later indicated Clinton had moved ahead). A closer look reveals that each has established dominance in particular metrics. Sanders’ updates elicit huge amounts of sharing, while Clinton generates by far the most comments.
Both of these metrics are indicative of huge interaction from supporters – just in different ways. Understanding how supporters engage with posts is key to developing a robust social strategy. Sanders’ following is eager to raise awareness by sharing, so his page includes plenty of easily-shareable native content (especially videos). Clinton’s supporters bring discussion directly to her page, allowing her to diversify her approach and include humorous posts alongside more serious updates. Looking at metrics like comments and shares affords political communicators a richer, more detailed view of how supporters and audiences respond.
4) Know Which Content Format Works Best
Native content (i.e. content uploaded directly to Facebook, as opposed to an external link) was one of the big talking points of 2015. As it tends to spark more engagement than other types of content, many users moved to embrace it and adapted social strategies accordingly. For political communicators however, it isn’t quite so simple.
Native content does generate big numbers. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz each have distinctive video strategies which yield significant dividends for their pages. Combined, these three candidates earn nearly 3 million engagements from Facebook video alone. Imagery can also be highly effective. Mike Huckabee, who ranked third in our first look at the Republican candidates on social (although he has since withdrawn from the race), used branded imagery and captions to unlock strong interaction among supporters. This content has the added advantage of translating across platforms – images can also be added to Instagram, for instance, while videos can be cross-posted on YouTube.
However, one of the more curious trends to emerge from our coverage of the presidential candidates on social is the strength of ordinary text posts. Ben Carson has been very successful in this regard. One of his trademark moves involves asking supporters to submit questions to a dedicated email address, the responses to which are then posted on Facebook. These responses tend to be long and thoughtfully phrased, prompting supporters to interact, comment, and even share them on.
While text posts generate fewer engagements overall, they do rank among the most popular and widely-engaged on Carson’s page itself, suggesting that supporters appreciate the format and will continue to respond. It is important to be mindful of this when planning Facebooks strategy – what works for some users may not work for others, and even an approach which seems simplistic can be highly successful if it takes supporter behaviour into account.
What political communication trends did you notice in 2015? Reach out to us on contact[at]newswhip[dot]com or via Twitter.