Social media analytics

Beyond the headline Facebook stats is Bill English winning?

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For all the talk of the hugely impressive rise of Jacinda Ardern, Bill English might actually be doing better than her on Facebook than we all realise. Despite Jacinda's page continuing to grow faster than Bill's, in the past fortnight there was significantly more engagement with Bill English's social media content than there was with Jacinda Ardern's. 

I've written before about how important Facebook page likes can be, especially for political pages in terms of the platform it can give them, but it's always useful to dive down to the next level of statistics to see how things are tracking. 

This is where things get interesting. If you look at the volume and type of interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) taking place for political parties and especially their leaders, it becomes clear that while Jacinda might be getting a higher rate of audience interaction on each individual post she makes, Bill is getting more audience interaction overall. And it's not by a small margin either.

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Taking a look at what's taken place on the party leaders' pages from 28 August to 10 September, Bill's page is only 14% larger than Jacinda's, but his page has received in total 62% more reactions (like, love, wow, laugh, angry, sad) than Jacinda's, there's also 54% more comments and, perhaps crucially, 75% more shares. Bill is also far more active than Jacinda on Facebook, having posted 64 times to Jacinda's 34 times - 80% more! Bill is posting around 4.6 times a day while Jacinda is only posting 2.4 times. Even looking back at the previous fortnight (from 14 to 27 August) the statistics are broadly similar.

While I'm not privy to the audience impressions either page is receiving, off the basis of this I'd wager that Bill English is reaching far more people on Facebook than Jacinda Ardern, and in the world of political communication, that's critical. You need to get your messages out in front of as many people as possible, as often as you can, and social media is custom made for that approach. I'd expect that each page should be reaching in excess of 1 million people each week - they're basically their own TV stations at this point!

It makes the fact that Jacinda Ardern hasn't tweeted for more than three weeks even more mysterious. She has nearly 86,000 followers on Twitter who, judging from my experience with Twitter, are more than likely to be a great tool to help amplify Labour's messages even more and ensure that people, especially influencers like journalists, business leaders, and bloggers, and seeing those messages on Twitter as frequently as possible. It seems so bizarre to negate a channel like this.

I'm not Twitter's greatest fan, but I can't deny that it has its uses and it seems very odd that Labour isn't maximising them to their advantage. Have they not been able to get Jacinda to share access to her account? Seems unlikely. Are they pursuing a policy where they leave Twitter in Jacinda's hands alone? Possibly, but it's clearly not working. Are they simply ignoring Twitter because they don't think it's worth the effort? If so they're neglecting a very powerful tool and community for centre-left parties.

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On the party front it's pretty much neck and neck between Labour and National in terms of the volumes and rate of interactions with their nearly identical amounts of content. What's fascinating here for me is how the bottom seems to have fallen out of interactions from the Green Party. My personal experience was that the Greens were almost always the best in attracting interaction with their content, but it's quite possible that following their leadership troubles of the past two months, and Jacinda Ardern's rise, that the bottom has truly dropped out of the party's support, which would be a great shame if that were the case.

It's also important to remember that outside of content that's publicly visible on a page's timeline, there will also be a wealth of content that solely appears in Facebook's ad slots, and can't be picked up by analytics tools.

Could this impact the outcome of the election? I think it could. It's vital to keep in mind that in an MMP environment, even a change of a couple of percentage points could be what enables a party to form a government or not. And that's really where I think social media, done well, can influence voters in a meaningful way, and done poorly, can cost you the chance to govern.

The most important graphs you'll see today

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As of 20 August 2017 the Labour Party overtook the National Party in terms of Facebook likes, a position they hadn't been in since 22 September 2014. At it's height, the gap between the two parties was around 18,000 page likes, as at the time of writing Labour is now approximately 400 likes ahead. Having been 200 ahead overnight.

National has enjoyed two significant boosts in the past year, in September of 2016 and from December through to January 2017 following Sir John Key's resignation and Bill English becoming leader and Prime Minister.

Labour's two boosts are from Parliamentary paid advertising just before the three month Regulated Period kicked in, and then from Jacinda Ardern becoming Labour leader at the start of this month.

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When you look at party leaders over a similar period (unfortunately my analytics tool can only pull data from September 2015 for most of them) you can clearly see the moments Bill English became Prime Minister and Jacinda Ardern became leader of the Labour Party.

Jacinda's rate of growth is now trailing off from the initial boost she received, but she's still growing by about 3,200 page likes more than Bill English each week. Assuming the rate of growth over the past week is more indicative of the campaign period itself, Jacinda will be just shy of 100,000 page likes by the election, while Bill will be around 107,000. Looking back at 2014's data, neither John Key or David Cunliffe seemed to enjoy a bounce from debates, but then again those debates didn't set the world alight, so a clear debate win for Jacinda could make a big difference for her.

As I've mentioned before, Facebook page likes aren't going to win you an election, but insofar that the more you have, the more people you can reach, and the morale boosting effect of knowing you are more popular than your opposition will have some impact on how you perform.

If you're curious where we sourced our data and graphs from from check out Quintly. It's an easy to use social media analytics tool that takes a lot of the hassle out of visualising your social media data.

Do Facebook page likes matter? Probably more than you think

What matters most on Facebook? Is it page likes? Post engagement? Reach? Impressions? It's one of the hottest debate topics in social media, especially in the political field. The truth is that how much each metric matters largely depends on what you're trying to achieve with your Facebook page. Though it's worth keeping in mind that the publicly visible statistics of page aren't the be-all and end-all of how a page might be performing, but they're a useful starting point.

While some digital consultants might be quick to dismiss page likes as a "vanity metric", I'd be just as quick to dismiss them as having just demonstrated that they have no idea what they're talking about. Page likes are useful for a few reasons:

  1. Organic reach: The more page likes you have, the more people are likely to see and engage with your content without you having to spend any money to promote it, and with funding for social media always competing with other  
  2. Viral-multiplier: Other than ensuring a decent background level of visibility for your page, a page with more page likes is far more likely to have a piece of content go viral organically thanks to there being more eyeballs on it.
  3. Community support: Having more page likes means you have a larger community of supporters who are ready to engage with your content, whether that's reacting, commenting, or sharing it. The largely that community is, the more validation it gives to others who are part of that community.

As a rule of thumb I've usually found that page likes usually translate to a page reaching around two to three times that number of unique people each week - and that's without advertising money. So an active page with around 200,000 likes will reach between 400,000 and 600,000 people on a standard week. That's a pretty useful multiplier to get your content out there. And one of the basics of advertising is to get as many eyeballs as possible looking at your ads.

Other than understanding how large your potential organic audience could be, the more page likes you have, the more statistically relevant the demographic, geographic, and interests information you can pull from Facebook's analytics tool will be. Having a better understanding of who your core audience is, and then being able to break that down into more targeted information for advertising latter on, is invaluable to putting relevant content in front of people.

Which brings us to reach and impressions - essentially two sides of the same coin. It's useful to define both of these as they're often misused by people (usually to inflate their own success). Reach should refer to the number of unique users who have seen a piece of content from your page. Impressions should be the total number of times content has been seen from your page (e.g. often the same person seeing multiple pieces of content, or the same piece of content multiple times). This allows you to divide impressions by reach and understand just how often people are likely to be seeing content from you. Reach and impressions are useful for comparing social media with traditional advertising mediums, say TV spots or newspaper ads as you're able to use similar metrics to judge success.

For example, you could run an ad asking for donations simultaneously on social media and in print and TV advertising, and on each channel you could use a slightly different URL. Using that unique URL, as well as knowing how many people were likely to have seen the ad in each channel, you're then able to understand which was the most cost effective in driving donations (hint - it's almost always going to be social).

Like TV and newspaper ads though, reach and impressions don't necessarily mean that someone has actually noticed your content. Just as TV and newspaper metrics assume that because someone has seen a show or picked up a newspaper, and thus seen your ad, Facebook, and indeed other social media channels, assume that someone flicking through their newsfeed and seeing your content has actually noticed it. Often it'll be something they've shot straight past while scrolling down their feed without giving it a second thought. If you ever wonder why pages keep experimenting with differing video and graphic dimensions - it's because they're trying to maximise the amount of real estate they take up on your screen while you're browsing.

This is where engagement metrics come into play, as you can usually assume that someone engaging with a piece of content - whether it's clicking on a post, reacting to it, commenting, or sharing it, means that they A) Have genuinely seen it, and B) It actually held their attention enough for them to do something with it. While to some extent higher engagement rates do drive your post to have greater reach in Facebook's algorithms (though I've seen pieces of content with fantastic engagement reach tiny audiences relative to page size) at the very least it gives you the ability to understand see what content is attention grabbing enough that people stop and look at it.

As I said at the start, these publicly available metrics aren't the full story. Much of what goes on with social media advertising, especially Facebook, isn't visible. The notion of "dark posts" for instance (while the name is a bit melodramatic for me - it's like claiming a newspaper advert put in one local paper, but not another, or an ad put in the sports section but not the news section, is a "dark ad") is one area where a page might look relatively quiet from the general public's view, but in actuality there could be a whole host of activity taking place from paid advertising campaigns that aren't readily apparent.

This was largely the case in the United States 2016 election where the day-to-day content you saw posted on the main candidates' pages was only a fraction of their online activity. Even though, for instance, Hillary Clinton may have been posting upwards of six to eight times a day, she would also have dozens, if not hundreds of supporting ad campaigns running in the background with targeted messages for specific voting groups.

There's no doubt a similar approach is being used by all the parties in this election, though given our more restrictive election spending rules, much smaller size, and less advanced Facebook advertising tools, we're unlikely to see the same level of sophistication here.

In the end, Facebook page likes do matter, but a lack of page likes can be circumvented by spending money on advertising. They're not the only page metric you should pay attention to, but they're an easy top-line indicator of a page's health and potential audience reach. Page likes, and page like growth, are also two of the most popular metrics to appear in media reports on political social media, so it doesn't hurt to have both these figures looking healthy.