14 July 2014

Explaining the chasm: Why is John Key so popular on Twitter and Facebook?

Stuff.co.nz last week reported on the gap that’s opened up in New Zealand politics. Prime Minister John Key has ten times more Twitter followers than the next-most followed party leader, opposition Green Party leader Russel Norman (111,443 vs 11,714 followers). There’s a similar gap between Key and the next-most liked leader on Facebook, NZ First's Winston Peters (151,269 vs 15,810 fans). Despite the fact he doesn’t engage with his followers/fans, Key has built a following.

Why is Key so popular on social media? What can we learn from how his team have used Facebook, Twitter and other social mediums? In many ways, John Key and his staff have been social media pioneers. But let’s start with the most-obvious reason for his massive haul of likes/follows.

The #1 blindly-obvious reason: He’s popular

John Key is about as popular as politicians get. On Facebook people tend to only ‘like’ things/people they actually like. Facebook Pages are a cross between a bumper sticker and a newsletter. They let people show affiliation and/or let them receive updates from that organisation/person/band/etc. People who like Key want to be associated with him and - probably - want to hear from him too. Things are more complicated on Twitter as it’s information-based rather than relationship-based so a person’s reason for following someone aren’t as clear cut, but that’s where reason two comes in...

People love a bandwagon

The bandwagon effect says that popular things become more popular because they’re popular. People love a winner. The leader of any country will attract likes and follows. In the same way that people will buy an album because it’s in the number 1 spot, people ‘like’ and follow John Key because others already do.

This is particularly evident on Twitter where people tend to follow/like people who already have lots of followers/likers. Other people are following them, so they must be worth my time, the logic goes. Twitter gives the bandwagon effect a hand by giving users ‘similar accounts’ and ‘who to follow’ suggestions based on who the people they follow follow. Because so many people follow Key, the chance of him being suggested increases.

He’s the Prime Minister

High status individuals get liked and followed on Facebook and Twitter. This is similar, but different to the reason above. However, just because Key has 150,000 fans on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t mean they all like him. There will be the curious, the clueless and even John Key’s opponents. Looking at my list of friend’s who ‘like’ the John Key Facebook Page, of those 11 people, I know that at least two are firmly left-wing.

Key used social media from the start

Social media has been central to the National Party communications strategy from early in Key’s leadership (anyone still using Bebo?). The John Key Facebook Page was set up on Facebook in February 2008. It’s worth remembering that Pages were only introduced by Facebook in November 2007 - two months earlier. Key and his team were at the head of the pack and National dominated that space during the 2008 campaign that took them to victory. Even now, Key can be found on budding social networks. For example, Google+ where he has over 16,000 connections. If Google+ ever takes over as the dominant social platform, he's already got a head start over the competition.

There are spoils for being a social media early adopter. Time has its advantages. As of writing, Key has been on Facebook for 6 years 4 months and 15 days. He’s had time to amass followers (a.k.a. the snowball effect). Back in March 2010, when John Key had an unofficial run-off with the ‘Save Radio NZ’ Facebook Page, he had only had 18,972 fans. Four years and four months later, he has 151,269 fans - that’s another 132,297 fans - eight times the number he had in 2010. Persistence counts.

Another factor is that up until recent times Facebook allowed Pages greater prominence in people’s newsfeeds. Great prominence = more interaction = more organic Page likes. That means more people finding and liking a Page because their friends liked a post, which then showed in their friends’ newsfeeds. There were also less Pages vying for users’ attention in the early days. These days, Page owners complain they have to fork out money for their posts to be seen by their fans or pay for advertisements, like Key’s British counterpart David Cameron controversially did in March this year.

The lessons

So what have we learnt from John Key's social media popularity?

  • Show up early - there are advantages to being ahead of the curve on social media
  • Make the most of the advantages popularity gives you - capitalise on your resources, such as the bandwagon effect... and your communications team
  • Stick it out - building a following take time
  • If that doesn’t work, you can always buy some fans - just ask David Cameron