A key feature of the UK government’s pandemic communications strategy has been the leaking of key policy changes a few days in advance of the official announcement. But why do they do this?
The idea of gauging (and grooming) public reaction by releasing big news in advance is not new. But in our 21st century, social media world, there is now a lot of data science that can refine the art of turning a vague pre-announcement into a carefully crafted final policy.
From beta-testing software …
You may not have heard of it but ‘social listening’ is the latest powerful weapon in communications strategy.
Before I dive into the detail, let me start with an analogy. There’s a common practice in the tech sector that you’re probably familiar with: beta-testing. This is when a developer launches an incomplete version of new software to a test audience.
Why would you release an imperfect product? Firstly, it’s an efficient, fast and cheap way of getting users to test your product for you. You could invest thousands of hours of work in testing your own product. Or you can crowdsource users to do it for you in a fraction of the time. Plus it’s (mostly) free – although it’s also common to offer ‘bounties’ to incentivise beta-testers. The end result: a better product that is launched into the market faster.
You also generate lots of helpful user experience and feedback. This means you can start working on new features before the product is even officially launched. If you can deliver upgrades in weeks rather than months, it puts daylight between your product and potential competitors.
… To beta-testing policy
Now apply that same model to government policy.
You could agonise for weeks about dotting every ‘i’, crossing every ‘t’ and getting all the details right. Or you could simply announce it to the media (via anonymous sources, so you can always back-track if you need to). The policy may be only 70%-80% complete at this point. But it doesn’t matter. The public will be straight on to Twitter to tell you what they think.
If you can gather data from all these conversations that allows you to read the room, think how powerful those insights could be. Think of all the thousands of tweets people made about the relaxing of lockdown rules. Or schools going back. Or the ‘one metre-plus’ rule.
All that feedback. All those opinions, criticisms and suggestions. What if you had tools that allow you to monitor all of this? What if those tools allowed you to distil the essence of thousands of conversations? You could gauge public opinion and make small tweaks to the final announcement, right down to the words and phrases that people are using in their conversations.
How efficient, effective, fast and powerful would that be?
What can social listening do?
Well, those tools already exist in a marriage of social media and data science called ‘social listening’.
Social listening platforms collate and process conversations at a speed that no human can. Tweets about ‘social distancing’. Use of particular hashtags. Mentions of the name ‘Dominic Cummings’ alongside ‘Barnard Castle’ and ‘should have gone to Specsavers’. Even tracking when your brand’s logo appears in Instagram posts. How many times have specific keywords been used, and in what context? Is the sentiment positive or negative? Are there key opinion leaders with significant reach, who can be targeted with messages to shape the ongoing conversation?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re replying to @BorisJohnson or @10DowningStreet, or just shouting in the vacuum to your 17 Twitter followers. Every public conversation is visible to the (almost) all-seeing social listening platforms.
If that all sounds a bit Big Brother, well, I suppose it is.
It’s also all legal, as your tweets are in the public domain. Social listening can’t read your DMs (they’re private) or your Facebook posts (also private). But even being able to read just tweets or comments on Reddit is hugely powerful. On an average day, around 500 million tweets are posted on Twitter. If you’re researching a popular topic, your daily sample size is tens if not hundreds of thousands.
Social listening is like hosting the world’s largest focus group. But instead of paying to get ten people in a room to talk, you can monitor thousands of conversations simultaneously. From all over the world. In real-time. With nothing more than a laptop and a software licence.
Big Brother is always (social) listening
Social listening isn’t a new technique. Here’s an article from 2013 – nearly seven years ago (or three years before TikTok was born) – that highlights the practical benefits of social listening in government.
And these platforms aren’t top-secret. They’re commercially available. I’ve been using a social listening tool in my day job for four years. I may even have been monitoring your conversations without you even realising it. (Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.)
Right now, a government official could be analysing your latest tweets and you wouldn’t know it. So when you’re telling the world about how ridiculous their latest policy is, remember that Big Brother is always watching (or listening). For as long as people will happily talk on social media, the policy of pre-announcements will continue because it makes complete sense to do so.
Social listening isn’t evil in and of itself. But it is there. It’s just that you didn’t about it. But now you do.
Written by Tim Liew.