How Is Social Media Being Used In Advocacy?

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New research offers insight to leverage social media more effectively in 2017

As President Trump and his team work to enact campaign promises, individuals and organizations both for and against the Trump agenda are gearing up their advocacy in Washington and around the country.

Social media is an increasingly used tool to get desired public policy results. We know that President Trump uses social media, almost exclusively Twitter, to advance his agenda. It is now easier than ever for Members of Congress to hear the views and opinions of real folks back home on how legislation or regulation impacts their lives. Social media as an advocacy tool has exponentially increased in the past several years with non-profits, trade associations, labor unions and civic groups leveraging their strength back home to move their interests forward.

As the President of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), I made social media as it was evolving a priority to maximize the impact of communications. These connections made between constituents, issue advocates, and members of Congress and congressional staffs are invaluable. Social media is allowing more voices than ever to exercise their First Amendment right to impact their government at all levels.

This rise in social media has also created a cluttered message environment and advocacy groups have to be creative in their social media messages delivered. Social media is one tool that should be used and its impact should be measured.

Ironically, little objective research has been done to determine the social media advocacy terrain and how one measures success or return on investment.

Last fall, I conducted research to determine how social media was being used in advocacy and if there were ‘best practices’ for social media by engaging seasoned Washington advocates. Over 164 individuals participated in the study. Some of the results might be obvious but others will surprise you. Beyond the statistical results, I also asked open-ended questions on best practices to ensure nothing was missed. The whole advocacy community was represented with Industry associations representing 23% of the sample; Interest Groups/Non-Profits 22%; Independent Lobbying Firm (representing clients) 23%; Corporations 3.7%; and, other at 6.2%

1. Advocacy organizations use a variety social media, but Facebook and Twitter dominate

Only Facebook and Twitter break fifty percent for advocacy use. Twitter ranks first with slightly over three-fourths using that platform. Advocacy organizations may be using Twitter to attract media as those in television, radio, and print look to Twitter for breaking news and interesting story ideas.

Facebook 69.86%

Goggle+ 08.21%

Instragram 19.97%

LinkedIn 35.65%

Twitter 75.34%

Pinterest 05.47%

YouTube 21.91%

2. Social media platforms used only occasionally to communicate messages directly to Congressional Offices on Capitol Hill

It appears that use of social media platforms to communicate messages to Capitol Hill is minimal--far less than one would anticipate. This could present an opportunity for advocacy organizations. Goggle+, Pinterest and YouTube were used less than 5%on a daily basis. Only LinkedIn was used more often on a weekly, monthly, and occasionally. Percentages were rounded for this answer.

Platform Daily Weekly Monthly Occasionally Never

Facebook 18% 18% 10% 26% 28%

Instragram 11% 01% 00% 11% 75%

Twitter 22% 18% 18% 26% 24%

YouTube 03% 03% 11% 24% 59%

3. Facebook and Twitter used sparingly to communicate messages directly to members or constituents of an advocacy organization

With all the talk about social media, this was a surprise. On a daily basis, only Facebook and Twitter are used by one-quarter of those surveyed. Over 60% of those surveyed never use Goggle+, Instragram, or Pinterest to communicate with their constituents. 59% never use YouTube. It looks like there may be some missed opportunities to further connect with those affiliated with your advocacy organization.

Platform Daily Weekly Monthly Occasionally Never

Facebook 15% 20% 07% 23% 35%

Twitter 18% 30% 06% 26% 33%

YouTube 00% 05% 08% 27% 59%

LinkedIn 01% 11% 10% 30% 49%

4. Advocacy organizations are using social media platforms for business development

Across the board, social media platforms are being used for business development. Here, Google+, Instragram, and Pinterest are never used by more than 80% of those responding to the survey. Over 40% use Twitter multiple times or at least once per day; Facebook is similarly used by 33% percent. 40% use LinkedIn and 20% use YouTube weekly.

5. Social Media platforms are still seen as more biased than traditional media

Despite the explosion of social media platforms, they are still seen as more biased than traditional media outlets. This is somewhat surprising given all the focus during the presidential campaign on the intentions and motivations of traditional media. It could be that social media is still seen as new, or that individuals consuming social media are weary of so-called “fake news,” instead believing that traditional media has more filters for authenticity and fact checking. Here biased is defined as the total of a lot more bias/more bias. Less is the total of a lot less bias/less bias:

Platform More biased About the Same Less biased Don’t know/No Opinion

Twitter 49% 19% 06% 27%

Facebook 59% 17% 04% 29%

LinkedIn 22% 38% 09% 34%

YouTube 26% 10% 06% 58%

6. Only half of advocacy organizations have someone specifically responsible for managing social media platforms

Only 53% had someone responsible for social media; 47% did not. As the sophistication of social media increases, we can expect this number to increase. Without someone specifically responsible for this advocacy tool, organizations will be unable to maximize its impact. Look for future research to demonstrate more advocacy groups hiring someone who has experience and an entrepreneurial spirit to maximize social media tools to impact public policy.

7. More objective metrics need to be developed to demonstrate social media platforms return on advocacy investment

Currently, there is no baseline metric to determine the return on investment of social media platforms. Those who were surveyed revealed a majority either do not measure the platforms or are uncertain or don’t know. Twitter and Facebook have the highest degree of measurement, although it is unclear what metrics are actually being used. Some might argue, for example, that a “like” on Facebook means something to commercial use of the platform. It is unclear if the “like” has any impact on public policy or impacts the outcome before the U.S. Congress.

Social Media Platform Yes No Don’t Know/Uncertain

Twitter 49% 37% 14%

Facebook 40% 44% 16%

LinkedIn 18% 58% 24%

YouTube 18% 63% 19%

I am certain that advocates will be able to point to successful social media campaigns. There have been numerous examples of social media platforms impacting a congressional legislative or regulatory outcome. On the other hand, there are probably just as many examples of investments in social media having little impact on advocacy initiatives. Advocates will need to be able to demonstrate objective return, so long-term use of social media continues.

Those who were involved in the research offered some great tips for those of us in the advocacy field. Here is a smattering of the comments:

“Ensure any content is relevant to their state or congressional district…”

“Be professional, be succinct, use proper grammar and sentence punctuations, and be nice…”

“Tailor your message…”

“Be specific and make it fun…”

“Photos and infographics seem to resonate with members of Congress…”

“Make sure staffers and legislators see your various postings…”

“Use positive messaging…”

“Reinforce ‘back home’…”

Social media in advocacy is here to stay. But for the platforms to remain a long-term advocacy tool, more empirical work will need to be done to establish the efficacy of the advocacy tool.

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