It shouldn’t be difficult to predict what social media monitoring and data mining will look like for political campaigns in 2014, 2016 and beyond.
Just consider where we, as individuals, are already getting most of our information. We probably check Twitter first thing in the morning to see what news is breaking. Then maybe we log onto Facebook to see what our friends and trusted acquaintances are commenting on. And of course, we’re doing most of this on our smartphones or tablets.
To overstate the obvious: the era of the newspaper tossed on the doorstop 12 hours after yesterday’s deadline is over. The same ought to be true for where campaigns expend resources. Despite all of the exciting and inspiring stories we heard out of the Obama campaign about the digital and data-driven tools that his team used, 2012 was decidedly not the year of the digital campaign.
As a co-founder and principal of companies that provided digital solutions to more than 300 campaigns last year—across the country and the political spectrum—I can say this much: no campaign used social media to its full potential last cycle.
So what should that tell us? To me it means 2014 will be an important year for the use of digital tools in political campaigns—one in which rapid growth has the potential to dramatically alter the make-up of even the most modest of campaign efforts.
Moving forward, I believe the tools available to campaigns for monitoring social media conversations will grow in three important ways: 1) they will become more user-friendly, 2) they’ll be predictive rather than reactionary, and 3) they’ll become far more accurate, especially when scoring the food of mentions as “positive” or “negative”—for you or against you.
When those things happen, even the most local campaign will be forced to put digital efforts at the top of its priority list, and strategists will be required to understand and use social media monitoring tools. Social media sentiment may even challenge traditional modes of public polling.
When it comes to user-friendliness, one of the tools we used extensively this past cycle was Radian6. Its parent company, Salesforce.com, focuses primarily on providing tools to enterprise customers, not political campaigns. Because of that, using it to track campaign mentions often felt like shoving a square peg into a triangular hole. Sure it can slice and dice data of past social media mentions in order to produce after-the-fact reports, but it doesn’t allow an organization to make quick, decisive strategic moves in real time.
If every campaign is expected to track social media, the tools for doing so have got to get a bit more Steve Jobs-esque. We need tools that are simply more intuitive and user-friendly.
Tracx is another monitoring and engagement platform in our team’s arsenal that any political communications junkie ought to look into. It contains in-depth metrics to help gauge the size and velocity of a conversation on social media—digging down so far as to show you on a map where sentiment is spiking. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising from a company based in the dynamic landscape of the Middle East.
The toolset that shows the most promise is now calling itself Zignal Labs. During the 2012 cycle, it was deployed in beta format on a number of campaigns as “Politear.” Its developers have the right idea: use algorithms to determine how quickly and broadly a particular story or sentiment is being spread across social networks.
That’s truly the functionality campaigns will need in coming cycles: the ability to predict when a conversation on social media has the potential to become rapidly viral or, potentially, nuclear.
Imagine a communications war room staffed by a college intern. The tools available will have to be so simple that even a young team member will know when to raise the red flag and alert senior campaign staffers to a quick moving story or sentiment.
If we think hard about it, we’ll realize that’s the way we already expect our social media channels to react. We want to see the top news first and be told when that news is a blip in the day’s events or a story big enough to remain on our feed for several hours or days.
When it comes to politics, however, social media tools aren’t there yet. The Silicon Valley mindset pairs software developers with problems that need to be solved. Because of that, I’m confident this issue of predictive analytics will be addressed, as will the scoring of social media mentions as “positive” or “negative.” And this is the third area where social media monitoring tools will expand in the coming years: accuracy. Being able to find and catalog hundreds or thousands of social media mentions is one thing, but correctly assigning a value judgment, or sentiment, to them is entirely another.
Establishing a Facebook page or posting talking points periodically on Twitter won’t cut it in 2014 and beyond. It’s clear that multiple digital tools will be necessary—from web ads to social media monitoring—and each will have to reach voters where they are. What’s more, the tools themselves won’t be enough. Successful campaigns will be forced to place digital experts front-and-center or at the very least hire strategists who embrace digital tools.
The tools already exist. Technology that has already been developed is capable of accomplishing campaign objectives. If the political world can catch up to Silicon Valley, (or as in the case of Zignal Labs, merge with it) the result will be a revolution for campaigns and candidates.
Bryan Merica is co-founder of ID Media Communications, a digital strategy firm based in California.