I popped along to give the keynote speech at a symposium on measuring online political behaviour yesterday organised by Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit.

In keeping with true keynote style I only managed to get along to the afternoon sessions at the event, but I still managed to catch a couple of interesting presentations: one from Rob Pearson at the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office examining the evaluation of its G20 London Summit web presence; the second from Simon Bergman from strategic communications outfit, Information Options.

I was presenting findings from some research I’ve been conducting into the use of online monitoring by the UK’s three main political parties: The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats which is an area without any in-depth study to date.

I've embedded my presentation above, but be warned – it’s text heavy (hey, it’s tricky articulating research findings using fancy images) – but here are some of my main findings:

  • All political parties report that they track online influencers qualitatively (e.g. Iain Dale, Guido, Political Betting, etc) but they also reported that they engage with these blogs to help set the national media-agenda (which nicely supports my earlier research). Equally, all online or influencer monitoring by parties is performed informally – that is, not using paid for or third party tracking tools.
  • One respondent told me that monitoring is about “a gut feeling about what’s going on” and also the UK political blogosphere is small and well organised. In my opinion, using influencers this way suggests that parties are perhaps only scratching the surface of influencer engagement. In my day job I would advise clients to establish a conversational position within influencer networks and build trusted relationships.  This is key to developing successful long-term engagement programmes - arguably the only real way to change behaviour.
  • Parties do engage directly to a limited extent with individuals online, particularly at a local level. However, The Labour Party appears to be closest to participating in real-time within online networks by engaging non-political networks, e.g. marketing/PR and media networks to leverage news or content.
  • Interestingly Labour also use quantitative tracking to identify popular or trending issues and content on the Labour Party website and to identify ‘content gaps’ on the Labour website. This insight is used to create new content to meet demand.
  • The Liberal Democrats use qualitative monitoring in a different way altogether: as an internal communications or customer service tool. By reading and staying on top of what Lib Dem campaigners and activists are saying, thinking and doing, the party can help out or resolve any issues that are emerging at a grassroots level. Really interesting use of monitoring.

My presentation also tried to force these findings into a critical framework based on the work Manuel Castells has completed in mapping and analysing the Network Society.

I started from the position that political parties monitor online networks to ensure they can engage effectively with the aim being to exert influence influence in the network.

One of the most important measures of influence – or more accurately – power in networks is defined by Castells as “networking-making power” = that is the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This ability is further categorised into two processes: programmers and switchers.

  1. Programmers have “the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network”
  2. Switchers have “the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources, while fending off competition from other networks by setting up strategic cooperation”

Based on my findings I hypothesise that the Tories are Programmers while Labour are Switchers:

  • Conservatives - early political online networks in the UK were (and still are to an extent) right-wing or anti-Government. This meant that the Conservatives were able to program the network and assign goals that were largely identical to its own. This would potentially explain why the Conservatives focus online engagement with influential nodes in the network rather and not primarily engaging in wider debate around issues.
  • Labour – Labour are Switchers as they are seeking to cooperate with strategic partner networks through shared goals. For example, identifying media networks interested in specific issues and leveraging them by combining resources.

Anyway. Those are my main findings. Feel free to challenge, share, agree with, etc. As always, they open up more questions for further examination than they answer. But that’s the beauty of research.