The Presidential Candidates Who Are Really Making a Mark on Twitter

Having a ton of followers isn’t enough.

Twitter probably won't be crashing during the State of the Union this year.
National Journal
Zach Montellaro
Add to Briefcase
Zach Montellaro
June 25, 2015, 4 p.m.

What pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate wouldn’t want a mass Twit­ter fol­low­ing? For a group that thrives per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally on pub­lic at­ten­tion, the pro­spect of reach­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands without hav­ing to spend a dime (or say a word to re­port­ers) is ma­gic.

Of course, that as­sumes these Twit­ter users are ac­tu­al people who are ac­tu­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to the tweets filling their feeds. And in the Twit­ter­verse, that’s far from a guar­an­tee.

After all, many Twit­ter users are in­act­ive, “fol­low­ing” oth­er users in the Twit­ter defin­i­tion but not ac­tu­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to them at all. For politi­cians hop­ing to use Twit­ter to spread their mes­sage, such ac­counts are of little use. Even worse for politi­cians are dummy ac­counts, those that are pro­grammed to run auto­mat­ic­ally and have no hu­man op­er­at­ing them.

And so, giv­en that, from a can­did­ate’s per­spect­ive, not all Twit­ter users are cre­ated equal, fig­ur­ing out which can­did­ates are ac­tu­ally mak­ing their mark through Twit­ter re­quires a cal­cu­la­tion more soph­ist­ic­ated than simply count­ing fol­low­ers.

For­tu­nately, there’s a dif­fer­ent met­ric to meas­ure the per­form­ance of cam­paigns on Twit­ter: en­gage­ment rate. En­gage­ment rate moves past the ques­tion of how many fol­low­ers a Twit­ter ac­count has to ana­lyze how of­ten those fol­low­ers in­ter­act with that ac­count through ac­tions such as retweet­ing, click­ing on a link, or reply­ing to the ac­count.

“A pure van­ity met­ric is how many fol­low­ers you have,” said John Ran­dall, a vice pres­id­ent at di­git­al con­sultancy firm CRAFT Me­dia/Di­git­al. “Just say­ing, ‘I have X mil­lion of fol­low­ers on Twit­ter’ — there is a value to that. But the great­er value is, ‘I have X mil­lion num­ber of fol­low­ers and on any giv­en post I have a large en­gage­ment rate.’ “

En­gage­ment on Twit­ter can be meas­ured through sev­er­al met­rics. There are the most pub­lic-fa­cing ones, like a fol­low­er retweet­ing or fa­vor­it­ing a par­tic­u­lar tweet, which is dis­played un­der every tweet on the plat­form; or the num­ber of views a video gath­ers. Cam­paigns also look at the click-through rate of links they post to so­cial me­dia to see how many clicks (or dona­tions) a par­tic­u­lar tweet gen­er­ates.

A high level of en­gage­ment for one tweet, however, isn’t enough: “Trend over time is really im­port­ant, not just a snap­shot of one day or even one month,” said Ju­lia Smekalina, who heads polit­ic­al di­git­al strategy at IMGE, a right-of-cen­ter di­git­al-me­dia con­sult­ing firm. “How is that en­gage­ment grow­ing or sus­tain­ing?”

Get­ting the highest amount of fa­vor­ites on Twit­ter is not the en­dgame for a cam­paign — there’s no ex­change rate between retweets and votes in the New Hamp­shire primary. Ul­ti­mately, the goal is to con­vert so­cial-me­dia in­ter­ac­tions in­to something more tan­gible.

“In a sense, [so­cial me­dia] is a town square. It is you stand­ing at your fence talk­ing to your neigh­bor about a spe­cif­ic is­sue,” said Ran­dall. “It is that abil­ity to make con­nec­tions with voters and ad­voc­ates to get them to donate, to share your mes­sage, and evan­gel­ize on your be­half…. Ul­ti­mately you can en­gage with them and hope­fully turn a non-sup­port­er in­to a sup­port­er who will go out and vote for you on Elec­tion Day.”

Des­pite the fo­cus shift­ing from van­ity num­bers like fol­low­er count or num­ber of tweets to more ad­vanced met­rics, cam­paigns still aren’t look­ing at all of the en­gage­ment met­rics. One area where most of the cam­paigns are lack­ing in en­gage­ment is reply­ing dir­ectly to po­ten­tial voters and sup­port­ers on Twit­ter.

“I was fly­ing and we had a crazy three-hour delay, and you could im­me­di­ately go on Twit­ter and fol­low com­plaints from people sit­ting on the plane with me to the air­line, and the air­line was re­spond­ing back,” Smekalina said. “How can cam­paigns rep­lic­ate that? I don’t know how well they’re do­ing that yet.”

But by the met­rics the cam­paigns are fo­cus­ing on, which 2016 can­did­ates are really get­ting their mes­sage out on Twit­ter, and which ones are talk­ing mostly to dead air? Here are their en­gage­ment scores, based on data from Tweetch­, a ser­vice that tracks sev­er­al pub­licly ac­cess­ible Twit­ter met­rics, like the num­ber of retweets, fol­low­er count, and tweets per day.

Av­er­age # of retweets (June 1-June 22)

Source: //tweetch­

1. Ben Car­son - 229.96
2. Rand Paul - 209.05
3. Ted Cruz* - 194.32
4. Marco Ru­bio - 179.56
5. Jeb Bush - 179.42
6. Rick Perry - 160.74
7. Don­ald Trump - 130.01
8. Scott Walk­er* - 68.19
9. Carly Fior­ina - 47.45
10. Mike Hucka­bee - 43.54
11. Rick San­tor­um - 39.25
12. Bobby Jin­dal - 38.63
13. Lind­sey Gra­ham* - 20.72
14. John Kasich - 19.00
15. Chris Christie* - 15.47
16. George Pa­taki - 15.13
*In­dic­ates two ac­counts

Av­er­age # of fa­vor­ites (June 1 - June 22)

Source: //tweetch­

1. Car­son - 416.15
2. Paul - 292.194
3. Trump - 243.27
4. Perry - 194.55
5. Bush - 190.16
6. Cruz* — 165.90
7. Ru­bio - 160.5
8. Fior­ina - 67.87
9 Walk­er* - 63.78
10. Hucka­bee - 61.88
11. Jin­dal - 49.94
12. San­tor­um -34.38
13. Kasich - 27.29
14. Gra­ham* - 26.78
15. Christie* - 24.84
16. Pa­taki - 16.33
*In­dic­ates two ac­counts

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