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The role of online monitoring in influencing political behaviour: an exploratory survey of UK political parties
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The role of online monitoring in influencing political behaviour: an exploratory survey of UK political parties


Keynote presentation delivered at Royal Holloway University's symposium, Measuring Political Behaviour on 14 September 2009.

Keynote presentation delivered at Royal Holloway University's symposium, Measuring Political Behaviour on 14 September 2009.

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  • 09/06/09
  • Conservatives monitor key political influencers and issues qualitatively and informally to shape political and media agenda through close personal involvement with online political influencers 09/06/09
  • Labour applies a more quantitative approach to monitoring by tracking specific issues and influencers but also “leveraging” strategic partnership with other networks… 09/06/09
  • 09/06/09
  • 09/06/09


  • 1. The role of online monitoring in influencing political behaviour: an exploratory survey of UK political parties Simon Collister We Are Social
  • 2. Overview
    • Context
    • Research Aims and Methodology
    • Main Findings
      • Monitoring objectives
      • Results by political party
      • Parties’ reporting methodology
    • Critical Analysis
    • Conclusions and Where Next
  • 3. Context
    • Strong body of evidence examining UK political parties media monitoring, news management and political marketing (O’Shaughnessy, 2001 and others)
    • Little evidence examining online monitoring, despite meteoric rise of online ‘social media’ in past five years and rapid adoption by political communicators (Collister, 2008; Lilleker & Jackson, 2009 and others)
  • 4. Social media: A theoretical note
    • “ mass self-communication” tools (Castells, 2009)
    • Peer-to-peer, networked
    • communication technologies:
      • Blogs
      • Twitter
      • YouTube
      • Wikis
  • 5. Research Aims
    • Investigate what quantitative and qualitative data the three main UK political parties monitor
    • Identify how this data is used within the party, with emphasis on communications
    • Assess this evidence against the theoretical framework of online mass self-communication (Castells, 2009)
  • 6. Methodology
    • Purposive sampling strategy
    • Semi-structured questionnaire
    • Interviews with new media/online advisors from each of the three main parties:
      • 2 x face-to-face interview
      • 1 x telephone interview
    • Follow-up email exchanges
  • 7. Main Findings
  • 8. Parties’ monitoring objectives
    • Online monitoring objectives are broadly aligned across all parties
      • Understanding public and influencer behaviour (on and offline)
      • Identifying key public trends (i.e. media or political issues)
      • Influencing national news agenda
      • Supporting traditional media monitoring
    • Emphasis on objectives varies significantly across parties, as does methodology
    • Labour only party to include email capture for fundraising as main objective
  • 9. Findings: Labour Party
    • Quantitative monitoring is used to provide “a deeper understanding of the networks [relevant to Labour]”
    • Third-party monitoring service used to identify & analyse:
      • significant changes in traffic volume to Labour Party website
      • trends based on up and downstream traffic
      • search data to assess ‘content gap’ on key issues
    • Qualitative monitoring is informal and used to track online influencers
    • Data used to inform communications planning strategically and tactically
  • 10. Findings: Conservatives
    • Quantitative monitoring is used but “not for political insight”
    • Qualitative [influencer] monitoring is used but is ad hoc: “ more a gut feeling about what’s going on ”
    • Influencer monitoring is also “relatively straightforward” :
      • the UK political blogosphere doesn’t have many influential players and they are well organized
      • Conservatives have strong personal involvement with online networks and help shape the political agenda
      • Mainly through issues-based blogs, (e.g. ConservativeHome) and influencing the media agenda (e.g. Guido Fawkes)
  • 11. Findings: Liberal Democrats
    • No real use of quantitative monitoring and qualitative monitoring to track key influencers and issues is informal
    • However: “ Systematic monitoring is key for tracking [Lib Dem] activists and campaigners; locally and regionally ”
    • Local activists tend to discuss any internal issues publicly allowing the party to use monitoring insight as customer service tool
    • Volume of this activity is low or quite specific: the kind of monitoring that is more about having a list of sites than using monitoring tools
  • 12. Insight reporting within parties
    • Labour reports data internally via ad hoc email updates
    • Both Conservatives and Lib Dems report online monitoring as part of general media briefing
    • All parties reported growing wider, institutional interest as parties recognise the potential of social media
  • 13. Additional insight
      • Labour also shares insights with key supporter networks
      • “ empowering campaigners ” and “ activating networks ” is central to their communications strategy and linked directly to online monitoring activity
      • Leverage is achieved through helping networks advocate Labour’s agenda by sharing information and content
      • “ Media networks are key to this with news and lobby correspondents using Twitter and blogs to source stories”
  • 14. Critical Analysis
  • 15. Rise of socialised communication
    • Castells believes that mass self-communication leads to an increase in the likelihood that “ new values and new interests will enter the realm of socialised communication ” (i.e. networks)
    • As dominance of traditional actors (e.g. media and institutions) declines in networks (or is destabilised through a decentralising network effect) their ability to control information flow becomes harder
    • This is a challenge for political parties used to controlling media and public agendas
  • 16. Rise of monitoring socialised communications
    • Monitoring is central to attempts to establish influence (i.e. power) within networks
    • All parties confirm they track influencers, activists and emerging trends and use this insight to ensure effective network interaction
    • This means parties can help shape the flow of information and power in networks
  • 17. Network-making power
    • Castells asserts that “ network-making power ” – the ability to establish and control particular networks – is central for maintaining dominance within networks
    • The ability to do this is based on two basic mechanisms:
      • Programmers have “the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network”
      • 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
  • 18. Hypothesis
    • Conservatives are programmers :
      • Opportunity to program as early online political networks were right-wing
      • Assign clear goals for network: attack present government and prevent Labour from winning the next general election
  • 19. Hypothesis cont’d
    • Labour are switchers :
    • They ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals: “ networks rely on subject-based trust not personality ”
    • They combine resources and set up strategic cooperation – i.e. sharing content with media networks
  • 20. What about the Lib Dems?
  • 21. Conclusions and what’s next?
  • 22. Conclusions?
    • All parties undertake informal qualitative monitoring of online political influencers
    • This monitoring is used primarily to shape political agenda with goal of achieving media coverage
    • Labour uses a formal quantitative monitoring service to generate insight for proactive campaigning
    • Lib Dems use online monitoring to track and address internal issues
  • 23. What next?
    • Conclusions are hypothetical and open up vast potential to explore several themes:
      • Castells’ theory of network-making power in UK context
      • The shift in political parties from traditional structures to “ actor-networks ” (LaTour, 2005)
      • Tracking the development of social media’s ‘ Excaliber ’
  • 24. Questions For further conversation: [email_address]
  • 25. References
    • Castells, M. (2009). Communication Power . Oxford Univerity Press: Oxford.
    • Collister, S. (2008). Networked Journalism or pain in the RSS? An examination of political bloggers and media agenda-setting in the UK. Paper presented at Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, April 17-18, 2008.
    • LaTour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An introduction to actor-network theory. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
    • Lilleker, D. and Jackson, N. (2209) Building an Architecture of Participation? Political Parties and Web 2.0 in Britain. Journal of Information Technology and Politics . 232-250.
    • O’Shaughnessy, N. (2001). The marketing of political marketing. European Journal of Marketing . 1047-1057.