How social media monitoring and listening can help your public affairs efforts

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Social media use has exploded in popularity, as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and numerous other networks serve as the technological crossroads where the public can meet. Politicians and campaign officials have leveraged these digital outlets to better connect with the electorate, and Americans have been there to greet them in droves, based on polling from Gallup and the Pew Research Center.

It isn’t enough, however, for elected officials and public affairs representatives to merely say ‘hi’ or answer potential voters’ and supporters’ questions. It goes deeper than that, addressing not only their on-the-surface inquiries but what lies beneath.

Social monitoring and listening are two key campaigning strategies that can help in this regard. But what exactly do these two terms — often used interchangeably — actually mean? Is one better than the other? Do they feed off one another? When and to what extent must they be employed?

Smartphone on table with text messaging and social media symbols above device.

The Master’s in Political Management online program with the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University answers these and many other questions that come with careers in the political arena. Consisting of 36 credit hours, several of which discuss social media strategy (including Maximizing Social Media, a three-credit-hour course and part of the Applied Proficiencies Cluster), the one-of-a-kind political management online program allows students to get ahead by bringing practicality to theoretical concepts. Social media was once an idea, but over a decade since its inception, its impact is highly apparent, which Maximizing Social Media deciphers in greater detail.

Here, we’ll briefly discuss the similarities, distinctions and interplay of social monitoring and listening, along with how they stand to inform campaigns’ public interaction efforts.

What is social monitoring?

Social monitoring is rooted in reaction. To stay in business — or in politics, remain in office — entities must respond or represent their constituents by providing a particular product or service that they request. Social media monitoring helps them tap into these desires that are readily apparent.

A classic example is the degree to which Americans seek to interact with politicians, in part so that they can feel more personally connected to them, which can play a role in who they vote for on Election Day. In a Pew Research Center survey, the share of registered users who follow political figures via social media has risen sharply since 2010, jumping to 21 percent in the 2014 election cycle among 30- to 49-year-olds compared to just 6 percent four years earlier.

This trend has continued, across all age ranges, as public officials not only have a social media presence, but develop campaign profiles that allow followers to monitor any new developments about policy positions, fundraisers or where they’ll be speaking during town hall events. Social media monitoring is largely what informs campaigns to take these rudimentary steps by observing the messages sent their way through various channels and following through on their stated wishes.

What is social listening?

Social listening, on the other hand, is grounded in proaction, being one step ahead to not only fulfill supporters’ wishes, but to understand what led to them in the first place. Social listening seeks to get to the bottom of why people may feel the way they do so the appropriate strategy can be formulated, thus potentially being able to anticipate simmering issues before they occur.

Consider the previous example about Americans’ desire for politicians to be on social media. Many polls over the years have shown that registered voters often feel like those in Congress aren’t hearing their voices, as approval ratings for lawmakers are at all-time lows. Being active on social media allows campaigns to better address and respond to constituents’ questions, but had social listening been leveraged sooner by understanding the roots of their dissatisfaction, representatives might have anticipated how best to respond earlier on.

How do social listening and monitoring work in tandem?

Social listening and monitoring are fairly new strategic concepts, given that social media is a comparatively recent communication channel. Thus, the two are often used interchangeably because there are certain nuances to each one that can be easily confused.

Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two is by comparing it to a health episode and how physicians respond to it based on their roles. Suppose you came down with a virus that was easily treatable because it had all the hallmarks of other illnesses. A primary care physician would prescribe the proper medication and dosage instructions so you can heal faster.

An epidemiologist, meanwhile, is charged with analyzing viruses at the molecular level. They investigate the root cause of the illness; primary care physicians address how it manifests itself. That’s a good way to think of social listening in contrast to social monitoring — the underlying source versus the symptoms.

While one — social listening — delves deeper than the other, this shouldn’t be construed as the strategy being more important than the other. They work hand in hand. Polling, for example, provides insight into how people feel about a certain subject. Representatives must take these opinions into account and respond accordingly.

Social listening entails using these opinions to inform a more long-term strategy. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook provide the venues through which campaigns can glean additional insight about voters and make full use of social listening and monitoring strategies.

Social monitoring, social listening, political management online

Maximizing Social Media addresses these and several other aspects pertaining to how students can use leverage social media to their advantage once they enter the world of politics. Even if your career pursuits aren’t in the halls of Washington, D.C., the course offers insight that you can use for professional development.

Visit our website to learn more about this course and the other classes you’ll take in your online master’s journey.

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Political communications director: Learn more about this career path

Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center
Pew Research Center
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