Who are the most engaging world leaders on Twitter?

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With elections in Russia already happened, those in the UK, France and the US to come there is much debate about how social media is now being used in both the electoral process, and more broadly as part of engagement between our world leaders and others on social media. Barack Obama has traditionally been held up as an example of using social media for campaigning and for engaging with people through Twitter, Facebook and other channels. But he is not the only world leader to use social media.

Whilst rankings, numbers and leagues tables only tell part of the story, it is a useful way to begin exploring and understanding how these leaders are using Twitter and which are most engaging.

World Leaders on Twitter

This ranking looks at known (and where possible verified) accounts of world leaders on Twitter. It uses PeerIndex to measure their influence and to rank them. The result for top spot is not surprising (Barack Obama), second place goes to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and then comes the President of Colombia in third (Álvaro Uribe) and Queen Rania of Jordan on fourth. The list continues to include leaders from Venezuela, Russia, Turkey and others.

The more successful world leaders on Twitter are not necessarily those who are responding to most people, or answering most questions. In fact most of the top five are not doing this on a regular or ongoing basis (probably either because the volume the get is unrealistic, or because it is not appropriate for them to engage in most discussions). What they have got right, however, is knowing their audience and pitching their content right. There is nothing worse than following somebody on Twitter who is either boring (for example constantly pushing out press releases) or who talks about such a wide variety of things it is difficult to know if you are interested or not. These world leaders clearly have strategies for how they are using social media and a plan to engage people around content and discussions of interest to them.

This is something we can all learn from, either for our personal or business accounts. Know your audience, work out what they are interested in (and what they are not interested in) and then engage and share with them on this.

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Japanese Prime Minister starts blogging and Tweeting

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"Japanese Flag"
Image by Marcus Vegas via Flickr

We’ve written before about the ways in which politicians are using social media, from US President Barack Obama, to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. These politicians, like many others, are using social media as a way of engaging directly with the public. They often use they use these tools as a way of focusing on specific topics or issues that are of interest to them. And social media can be a great way to open up and bring people inside the organisation and see what is going on and feel like they have a direct connection with those people making decisions. Just as this is beneficial for brands, so it is also beneficial for organisations and governments

The latest world leader to start using social media is Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (鳩山由紀夫). On the 1st January 2010, he started Tweeting (@hatoyamayukio) and blogging (Hato Cafe).

He currently has almost 150,000 followers on Twitter, not bad for his 12 updates. He says in his bio that this account is not just to talk about politics and the updates so far range from politics to insights into Hatoyama’s life and routine. On cold mornings he likes a warming cup of tea and a walk, apparently. Even sharing a video of the pigeons in the garden of the residence from one such walk. On the blog - Hato Cafe (or Dove Cafe) he has reported on his trip to India and his discussions with Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, from the International Space Station.

On the blog, Hatoyama explains what he is using social media for:

I started this blog as a first step to burying the gap between people and politics as well as changing this country together.

It will be interesting to watch how this use of social media develops and changes. The update so far have been a mix of personal reflections, insights into the Japanese Prime Minister’s life and reflections on official trips and events. He talks about engaging the public in public policy debates via both the blog and Twitter and this would be a fascinating development in the Japanese political landscape where traditionally engaging people online has not been part of policy during elections or governments.

But there is a lot to be said for just using social media to engage people and let them see behind the scenes and into the live and perspective of the Hatoyama himself. Social media tools can be a great way to let people understand more about the individuals - what they do, think and experience. This is, on its own, very important - breaking down barriers between the public and politicians in a way that has previously not been possible to do on such a large scale. Whilst a small number of people might once have heard a Japanese Prime Minister’s story of the birds in his garden as he takes his morning walk, we can now all know about this and even experience it with him through his video. Do not underestimate the importance of this. The more we understand about people the more we engage with them.

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Turkey texts - social media makes advice lines more useful

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As Josiah Bartlet in the West Wing once said “This time of the year there should be a hot line you can call with questions about cooking turkey. A special 800 number where the phones are staffed by experts”. There have been many comparisons drawn between the Bartlett administration on our screens and the potential Obama administration that comes into power next year. But with Obama’s use of social media (stories of him abandoning his BlackBerry aside) I would imagine he wouldn’t be calling for a hot line, but for texts, blogs and online communities. It turns out Butterball beat him to it.

Living in the UK, I’ve never used the Butterball ‘Turkey Talk-line’. In fact I learnt about it first from that episode of the West Wing. But I know that what they offer is a resource for people to ring and get advice on how to cook their Thanksgiving turkey. this year they’re trying something different. Rather than just having a team of 50 experts to answer calls from some 100,000 novice chefs each year, they have started to use social media to get their advice across.

This year, they’re using blogging and ‘Turkey Texts’ to get their advice across. When they started the service in the early 1980′s, the phone was the best way of getting in touch with their target audience. Now that’s no longer the place. The means through which we communicate have changed, and also the way that we connect. We no longer just look to experts, but also to getting advice from ‘people like me’ - those who are going through the same problems at the same time. Using social media, Butterball can build on each of these trends. Consumers can now  sign up for text messages, reminding them when to take their turkey out to thaw and advising them on the temperature and time needed to cook their bird. They can read blogs from experts, participate in live chats and watch how-to videos.

I’m quite impressed with this as an example of how social media can really enhance the user’s experience. Whereas previously you had to call and get advice once, you can keep going back to the website on multiple occasions, in your own time. This builds a stronger bond with the brand - they move from people the people who gave you advice once, to the people who gave you the resource to help yourself on an ongoing basis. This is the crux of what can make an online community really work. Identifying the ways in which you can extend and enhance a consumer’s brand experience. Work out how you can help them, how you can attract them to your site more frequently and for longer, and you will gain great brand exposure, loyalty and advocacy. So good news all round.

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Will social media be used as well once the election’s over?

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I know that polls can be inaccurate - they are biased towards people with a fixed-line telephone (rather than just a mobile phone or no phone at all), they suffer from people projecting the response they think the interviewer wants to hear (they may not admit that they wouldn’t vote for a black man), and we know that how you ask the question can vary the response you get. However, most polls seem to agree about the outcome of today’s US Presidential Election. From CNN to Bebo and even a poll of Americans in the office at FreshNetworks all suggest one outcome - an Obama victory. Okay the Bebo poll did see Paris Hilton take second place above McCain, and there are only two Americans in my office - but the argument holds!

We’ve posted in the past about the 2008 US Presidential Campaign. Be it Obama’s lead in the web campaign during the Primaries, his team posting Democrat strategy discussion online, things we can learn from Obama’s use of online communities or what UK politicians can learn about social media from this US campaign. What’s evident is that this campaign has been one that has really embraced social media and online communities both as a way to campaign and as a way to engage people on the issues. Both main candidates have embraced social networks and online communities, although nobody probably doubts that it is Obama who has shown real innovation. Using strong calls to action on his site, building and engaging with the community both on his site and where they are, and involving people in the process he has shown a real example of how engagement should work.

My question now is how this might carry on into a potential Obama-Biden administration. How would they use social media and online communities to continue to engage with people when they are in power. Social media can really help engage people when it provides away for them to have a real exchange about things that matter to them, where they can find out information on things they are interested in, share ideas and thoughts with peers and with politicians, report things to them and feel that they continue to be part of a campaign. Whatever happens tonight and whoever wins the election, it is likely that it will be a difficult few years; involving and engaging those who have been such strong supporters to now will continue to be a priority.

Whatever happens, our advice to Obama would be to keep it simple and focus on what has worked so far. Find a way to inspire and involve those who have been passionate about your campaign so far, keeping their enthusiasm and advocacy on side. But move beyond this and think about the ways in which social media can actually help to make your life easier. Whether that’s automating and bringing online petitions and discussions on issues, allowing review and comments on policy ideas online and in communities or using social media as a way of getting your message directly to people you are trying to engage and in a medium that really engages them.

Our work with clients at FreshNetworks shows that using social media successfully can really make things easier for them. We’ve seen this in the campaign - in terms of reach, letting advocates do your campaigning for you or raising money from a broad body of donors. I hope that when in the White House, Obama’s team use social media to make it easier for them to meet the new challenges and issues they will have to face in this role. That kind of engagement can only be good for citizens, and it can be powerful for the administration too.

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What UK politicians can learn about online communities

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There was an interesting piece in the FT this weekend, discussing how the UK’s political parties could learn from their US counterparts. It is party conference season in the UK at the moment - members of each of the main political parties will be meeting at various seaside resorts around the country to discuss policy and process. They are a time when the core, keen supporters and activists get a chance to get their voices heard at the conference and at fringe events. They should also be a time when parties recruit and retain a wide base of supporters.

The FT article discusses how parties appeal to these two, often diverse, membership groups:

Keeping activists happy while remaining a credible electoral force is a tight-rope act, and technology is changing this problem in the UK and US - but in different ways.

We have written before about how Obama is using social networking and online communities in the US to build a groundswell of support. After this post, there was a discussion on e-mint, the community manager mailing list) about how politicians and political supporters in the UK are behind the US in terms of making use of social networking tools like this.

Obama’s success is in making it easy for a large community to build, each donating small amounts of money. The community is funding his campaign in this way and he is allowing this mass of smaller supporters to get involved and to be part of his movement. As the FT notes there is another advantage of building a large community of support in this way:

Being less reliant on the usual suspects also makes it easier for candidates to move towards the popular centre ground. It can only be good news if candidates are not captive to their party faithful.

In the UK, however, politicians and parties are yet to truly engage people in this way. They may allow people to become their friends on Facebook or other sites, they may ask you to make a pledge as a supporters, but there is no way in which they are really harnessing the power of the wider community. Rather, the most successful use of social networks in the UK has been by the small group of powerful activists. It is their blogs that are most read, and they who are building followers online.

So in the US, social networking has allowed the broader base of supporters to be heard and so allowed politicians to pitch to this more central ground than to more extreme views of a small number of activists. In the UK, by contrast, it is the activist supporters who are most active online, who have the most followers and attract the most support.

This difference is fundamental. For the online communities we build for brands and organisations at FreshNetworks, there are usually two broad types:

  1. a group of your brand advocates, maybe as a specific online research community, to help amplify word of mouth, to reward them, or to involve them in innovation or co-creation
  2. a larger group of consumers or individuals to gain insight into what they think, to help crowd-source or co-create new products, marketing or approaches, for innovation, to build advocacy or just as a way of engaging a wider group of people in a sustainable way.

UK political parties are very much in the second type, with the US in the first. Both approaches are good and valid uses of social media and online communities. Both can be successful. But in terms of building sustainable engagement across your consumer base, the latter is perhaps of more use. I’d like to see UK politicians and political parties truly engaging people in this way, in a sustainable and broad manner. As this weekend’s FT article says:

Online campaigning has been an enormous success in the US, engaging millions of people - and maybe even solving the political funding dilemma. UK parties - wrestling with the same problems - should consider their example.

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