Editor’s Note 2019.05.22: Insert bots.

Editor’s note 2011.10.11: With Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and the rest of the Republican field set to meet tonight for the Bloomberg/Washington Post debate, now is the perfect time to inaugurate Backchannel, what we hope will become an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics, hosted on techPresident. This piece comes from Alan Rosenblatt, associate director for online advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

It would be a serious mistake to think that just because Mitt Romney has 1,129,189 million Facebook fans and Rick Perry only has 167,060 fans that Romney is more successful on Facebook than Perry. Meanwhile, the surging Herman Cain has 255,315 fans.

There are two key considerations that we must make to make a proper comparison between these two candidates’ Facebook presence. First, the stark difference in the number of fans each has is directly the result of time. Romney has been building his Facebook presence since he launched his last presidential bid in 2008. That means he has been building a national audience for four years, fueled by enormous press coverage during his 2008 campaign. Perry and Cain, on the other hand, have only been building national Facebook audiences for a few months.

Second, focusing on the size of the audience ignores the most important social networking metric, audience engagement. Why? Because each time a fan engages with a candidate on Facebook (by liking, commenting or sharing content on a candidate’s page), they send an endorsement of that candidate to their friends via their newsfeed.

By liking, commenting, or sharing content from a candidates page, a page visitor (fan or not) is recommending that content to their own friends. This peer to peer referral is far more influential than any candidate to voter messaging because people trust their friends, often above all others. Think about it this way: who are you more likely to believe, a political candidate who is saying everything they can to get elected, or your friend, who you trust because he/she is like you, because you know them, because they aren’t a politician.
When people post comments to or share candidate’s wall posts on Facebook they are opening up a conversation with their friends, far more than they are opening a conversation with the candidate. There may be a slight chance that the candidate replies directly to the commenter, but there is a far greater chance that the comment will start a conversation among the commenter and his/her friends.

This conversation about a candidate among friends is a significant departure from the historical patterns of voter engagement in electoral campaigns. Prior to the rise of the Internet, generally, and social networks, specifically, most voters waited until the last two weeks before an election to consider their options. But that has changed. By June of 2008, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 46% of Americans had already used the Internet to learn about the candidates. Now, with dramatic increases in the use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, Americans are also talking with each other about the candidates. 160,000 Perry fans are not just discovering who he is, but they are talking about him with their friends. They are sharing his messages with them and discussing them. This creates a much deeper level of political engagement within the electorate, far in advance of traditional timelines.

In order to truly assess the level of success Perry, Cain and Romney are having on Facebook, let’s dive into what their fans are doing on their pages. If we look at the numbers, we clearly see that not only fan for fan, but also in absolute terms, Rick Perry is outperforming Mitt Romney in terms of engagement (likes and comments) and the extended reach that produces. Cain outperforms Perry and Romney generating likes on his wall, but lags considerably on comments. Simply scanning the wall posts on their two pages shows that Perry consistently gets 2,000-6,000 likes on his posts, Romney gets 500-6,000 likes per post and Cain get 1,000-12,000 likes per post. Despite having significantly fewer fans, Perry has a slight edge in likes per post over Romney, and Cain does even better. These likes are quick, low-cost hits that alert the friends of the fans liking the candidate.

While not as conversation provoking as comments or shares, likes are akin to opening volleys, priming the conversation pump. On many occasions, I have liked a politician’s page and quickly received questions on my wall asking me why I liked them.

When it comes to comments on posts, though, Perry buries Romney. Romney rarely gets more than a 1,000 comments on a post. Most are in the 300-800 comment range, with a rare flare-up to 1,000 (or 3,000+ in one instance in September). Meanwhile, Perry gets over 1,000 comments on every post and frequently exceeds 3,000 comments on wall posts.

Cain’s wall gets surprisingly few comments compared to the other candidates and, more interestingly, compared to the number of likes he gets. It’s like Cain’s fans are really good at clicking buttons, but not so interested in writing down their ideas.

When we consider that the average Facebook user has 130 fans, we can quickly see that Cain and Perry’s reach far exceeds the number of fans who like their page. As a result, Perry’s fans are generating a lot more conversation than Romney’s. Cain’s fans are generating significantly more buzz than either of his top contenders, but that buzz has far less substance to it.

At some point, it is very likely that Perry and Cain will catch up to Romney in total fan/page likes. When that happens, extrapolating his current performance levels, we should expect Perry and Cain to generate many times the level of engagement than Romney, albeit qualitatively different from each other’s, if we extrapolate their current performance numbers.

So, while we expect to see lots of stories comparing the three GOP frontrunners on social media that point out important similarities and differences (like this one), their focus on total number of fans/page likes misses the primary point of social networks: getting your fans to spread the messages of your campaign and creating conversations and buzz that are driven by YOUR trusted messengers.