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Social Advocacy and Politics: In Search of the Holy Grail of Social Advocacy

The search for the Grail has consumed many a person over the past two thousand years, both fictional and real, so much so that “searching for the Grail” has become a meme more universal than even naming every American political scandal “-gate.” What makes the search for the Grail such a powerful meme is its combination of being a lofty goal that no one has yet achieved. In the world of social advocacy and politics, in my opinion, the so-called Grail is the ability to fully understand the downstream influence of your campaign’s social network. When Buzzfeed announced its new analytics technology last April, POUND, I thought, for a moment, that they had found the Grail I seek.

Not quite.

That is not to say that POUND is a failure; quite the contrary. POUND is a stunning advance in social media metrics. But it does not go as far as I would like.

POUND is the acronym for Buzzfeed’s Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion. And it does something truly amazing: it reports the aggregate downstream diffusion of links (from Buzzfeed) ACROSS social networks (see image below).

But POUND is specifically designed to see the “forest, not the trees.” At this point, my head is filled with Harold Finch’s voice:

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system — a machine — that spies on you every hour of every day. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people. The government considers these people irrelevant. We don’t.”

Unlike the government in Person of Interest, campaign organizers consider the individuals observed by the machine (POUND) relevant. While it is truly amazing to see the whole pattern of the dissemination of a message across the social graph, knowing who is doing the sharing is extremely valuable; it is the real Grail.

In particular, as we trace the downstream influence of our network, knowing who among our audience are exerting the greatest amount of influence would allow campaigns to take role of social media in the campaign to a whole new level. If we were able to separate out the most influential of our sharing audience all the way down the distribution tree, we could differentiate among the three levels of an advocacy audience:

  1. Message Receivers
  2. Message Sharers
  3. Message Influencers (AKA Super Activists)

Currently, we cannot easily differentiate Message Sharers from Message Influencers.

Message Influencers (Super Activists) are a special breed of social sharers who are incredibly valuable to advocacy and political campaigns. Not only do they share the campaign’s message, but their sharing generates a lot more sharing and reach. Not only does this enhance key performance indicators, but Super Activists greatly enhance the influence of the campaign. They are trusted messengers intermediating the campaign’s message to their own networks, who inevitably trust them more than they would trust a campaign organization.

And so, once again, the search for the Grail continues unfulfilled. Buzzfeed’s POUND is incredibly powerful and would help any campaign better understand the impact of its message; which content works better than others. From POUND’s metrics a campaign could hone its message for maximum exposure. But this is not the Grail we seek.

Nevertheless, POUND gets us closer to the Social Media Grail than we have been before. As with all software code, each step forward towards our goal makes it easier to achieve. And every time we get closer, I raise the issue in hopes that someone out their will build the Grail so that I can use it.

I hope they choose wisely.

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