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Competitions Aim to Define Congress’ Social-Media Successes

Counting Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers is easy, but for a congressional office trying to measure political engagement, those numbers don’t add up to much.

“‘Likes’ is very much a vanity metric,” said JD Chang, founder and head of the political data analytics startup TrendPo. “People can buy likes … but things like retweets or Facebook talked-abouts are a lot harder to purchase or to game, because those are the things that you actually need to have engagement.”

To help communications directors and politicians figure out how to speak to their online audiences, groups outside Congress are developing new metrics for success.

TrendPo developed an algorithm for ranking online buzz and momentum by combining Facebook and Twitter interactions with YouTube channel views and traditional news mentions. The D.C.-based firm helped power the House Republican Conference’s most recent intra-caucus social-media competition and regularly challenges members to compete for influence and engagement.

The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with members to enhance their operations and interactions with constituents, is also entering the arena. Since 2001, the CMF has recognized the best websites on Capitol Hill with its Gold Mouse Awards, and for the 113th Congress, it will include an award for best social media.

“Having that little bit of competition and knowing that there is somebody out there who is looking at what they’re doing and recognizing the best of the best, really encourages them to keep up with the latest,” said Nicole Folk Cooper, director of research and publications for the CMF, who has worked on the Gold Mouse Awards project since its founding.

TrendPo and the CMF differ on their approaches to selecting “the best of the best,” and also on their method for stoking competition. While the CMF is asking members to self-nominate with an explanation of how their office’s social-media strategy best serves the needs of their constituents, TrendPo is placing the members it considers top performers into a March Madness-style bracket.

The firm is powering a six-week competition that pits the 64 senators most active in social media against each other, focusing on a different social medium or combination of mediums each week.

A 60-second clip themed “ObamaScare,” with the grim feel of a horror movie preview, helped Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, best fellow conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in YouTube views and “likes” last week.

The two went head-to-head for a spot in the final four. The Cruz team’s polished production was watched 44,000 times, compared with 7,300 plays of Paul’s five-minute, uninterrupted upload of a recent Fox News interview.

“It’s not just a gaming aspect,” Chang said of the showdown, which mimics NCAA sports for political geeks. “There [are] real-life implications of, in this case, Ted Cruz, being able to talk to a different type of constituency or talk to his constituency in a different way. That’s what we want to teach, and that’s what we want to provoke them to do.”

The CMF, by contrast, is judging members on their ability to foster transparency and accountability for the online audience by offering straightforward information on policy stances and key votes they’ve cast.

“We don’t want to highlight innovation for innovation’s sake, but that it provides some kind of value to constituents,” Folk Cooper said. Examples include using social media to give details on disaster assistance or breaking down the legislative process by “connecting the dots for people so that they don’t have to find out on their own and try to interpret.”

Authenticity is important, Folk Cooper said, pointing out that members are “flocking” to the new tools. Counting Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, members of Congress account for more than 1,500 social-media profiles. The CMF is sifting through that volume by asking offices to self-nominate by Dec. 2.

Chang says TrendPo is having fun bringing its competition to a mass audience. Next may be “Tea Party Sweeps,” pitting 64 of the GOP’s most conservative messengers into a branding battle.

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