Social media in politics. A lot has been made of its importance, and AdAge reports that Mitt Romney’s digital strategist Zac Moffatt is a believer in its effectiveness, with a caveat.
Responding to findings from the Pew Research Center revealing that Barack Obama has greater reach and is more active than Mitt Romney in social channels, Moffatt said: “It doesn’t matter how many people follow you if they’re not engaged.” It’s a pretty reasonable argument, but is Romney’s strategy really comparable to political “Moneyball?”
Does the quality of engagement matter?
So what is the engagement that Moffatt touts? On Facebook, “engagement” is not direct engagement with the candidate but conversations about the candidate’s content. Moffatt cites that rate of engagement on Romney’s page was 27% after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health care law known as “Obamacare,” comparable to 1.5% on Obama’s page. Statistics like these may not be as they appear, though.
An interesting phenomenon for social media in politics and sports makes measuring Facebook engagement difficult. Obama supporters frequently post on Romney’s board, and Romney fans post frequently on Obama’s board. Today for example, a presumed Romney supporter suggested (on the President’s page) that the President fellate him and a presumed Obama supporter (on Romney’s page) equated Romney’s views on social issues with advocacy for child molestation. (Assuming their parents are also on Facebook, I can only imagine how proud they must be.)
Simply because a conversation is happening on a particular page doesn’t mean that it is a conversation between fans. There is a quality of engagement on Facebook that may not be as indicative of advocacy as the campaigns lead people to believe.
Money where their mouth is?
Social media in politics provides an interesting framework to examine content quality as a driver of action. If you examine Obama or Romney’s Facebook and Twitter pages you see that both are using social media as an advertising vehicle. They generate content, post it and rely on the extended networks of their advocates to extend the reach of their message.
What Moffatt implies about Romney’s social content is that it is more engaging than Obama’s, discounting Obama’s advantage in frequency and reach. Since Romney and Obama are both advertising in the social space, their content is more or less indistinguishable from their content on traditional media. So if Romney’s team truly had a higher quality of content, one would expect that they would be able to spend less on traditional media than Obama and draw even.
Ohio is a great example of how this is not happening. AP reports that Obama has spent about $20 million in the state, matched by Romney and affiliated SuperPACs. Based upon the content quality hypothesis, Romney should be ahead of Obama but he isn’t. In fact he trails in most polls. All things are somewhat equal here, and despite that parity, Romney trails Obama. This provides very little insight except to show that by the penultimate measure (voting intention) Romney’s content isn’t qualitatively better.
Social media in politics may not be as special as people want to make it out to be. Dismissing social reach as a “vanity metric” may be more spin than genuine insight. Reach and frequency are both quite important in social media, as important as reach and frequency in any other medium.