Back in DC after the Zambia elections - make sure to check out CCMG’s Facebook page and read their final statement for details on how it all shook out.
I’ve shared the work we did in advance of the election to make sure that we got all the reports in from our observers and that data center was able to process the information such that CCMG’s analysts could crunch the numbers and figure out what it all means.
For this update, I wanted to give you a look behind the scenes on the social media communications side, which is what largely consumed my time from election day on.
Communication is an important part of any monitoring program; though with the huge amount of effort invested in getting the data in the first place sometimes its public outreach can end up with less focus than it deserves. Without proper promotion of the findings though, you end up with a PVT falling in a forest problem: if no one hears about an election monitoring mission, did it actually happen? While there’s traditionally targeted outreach to the big political players and a classic press conference, social media provides an unprecedented way to engage the (online) masses with information about your programs.
First question CCMG faced was where exactly to communicate. There’s such a profusion of platforms these days - one could plausibly be on Facebook, twitter, snapchat, whatsapp, or instagram, and there’s doubtless other new ones I’m not even aware of. (Yikyak for elections, anyone?) Unless you’re a major presidential campaign, you probably don’t have bandwidth to curate good content for all of them. In Zambia, the platforms that we decided on were Twitter (important for key political and journalistic audiences) and Facebook, by far the most ubiquitous social platform. WhatsApp is also popular, but harder to use in a mass communications strategy (if anyone has examples of good uses of WhatsApp would be very interested).
We spent time up front thinking through a content management strategy and putting together a concrete schedule. For Facebook we were able to prewrite a range of content of different types, and use Facebook’s super useful post scheduler to make sure they rolled out at a regular pace throughout the day. We had a mix of quotes and highlights from the various reports the group posted, messages supporting peace and patience, photos from across the country on election day, and other news stories, making for a varied and interesting set of information.
Real Pictures from the Ground
Capturing pictures from the field was particularly useful - folks love seeing pictures, and posts with snaps tend to perform well. Most of our district supervisors were connected using WhatsApp, and so they would take pictures (when legal) with their smartphones and then simply post them to the group. Our top-notch communications manager Chibesa was following closely, and would copy the best ones for use online.
We did the same sort of thing with CCMG's Twitter account as with Facebook, but took advantage of the super useful Buffer.com system to pre-stage a similar series of tweets. If you want to have a steady flow of content over a long period of time, but don't have full-time comms staff pushing "post" when their watch ticks over to the next target time, something like that is needed.
One of the biggest challenges and opportunities was with Facebook comments. It’s by far the most direct way CCMG actually engaged in conversation with the citizens. Elections are very intense and polarizing activities - and #ZambiaDecides was certainly all that. As such, there’s a lot of anger and frustration - and partisanship - that came at them. Along with that, though, were a lot of positive support and important questions from the citizens. Managing those comments and replying to things in a timely fashion - for CCMG, within a day or so - took a good deal of effort, and could be a full-time job.
Live streaming with Facebook Live
Something entirely new we tried was Facebook Live. It’s their answer to Periscope or Meerkat - a super easy system to livestream video from events. Since Facebook was their primary method of online engagement, it made a lot of sense to have it there. The video is then captured and archived for later. CCMG promoted the upcoming livestream before and while it was happening, capturing over a hundred viewers at the time and over a thousand later. Though most of those many did not stick around to the end - the average length of viewing was 6 minutes or so. The apparatus to get reasonable high-quality, professional looking video? My iPhone, literally taped to a sign borrowed from the hotel.
Visualizing information with Factoids
Elections generate data. A lot of data. Most of us have trouble understanding a spreadsheet, and even if we could it’s hard to know which individual elements are most important.
For quite some time - notably in Kenya during their last round of elections - NDI partners have been taking some of the most illiuminating individual numbers from their monitoring results and pairing them with illustrations that help normal people understand what they’re looking at.
In Zambia we had the pleasure of working with a really great local graphic designer who built a great many custom designs for us that were about the most whimsical and droll that i’ve seen. Humor is a great way to get people to pay attention - and in a social media world, to encourage people to share them.
There’s a whole folder of them here.
Using Bitly to share and analyze link traffic
CCMG had a lot of content that wasn't on Facebook they wanted to share. They could always point people directly to their website, but it didn't have good analytics set up, and long URLs are impossible to share on the radio and take up a lot of space in any case. We set them up with Bitly so they could create memorable short URLs for their content, like https://j.mp/CCMG2016Verification. As a bonus, Bitly provides great analytics, so we could see how their contents were being communicated and read and via what path.
So what's the point?
CCMG invested a lot of time, money and effort in their communications strategy. Not every group can pull something like that off - they're a very sophisticated crew - but in return they had some pretty impressive numbers. CCMG reached hundreds of thousands of Zambians on Facebook; the verification statement I linked was opened over 7,000 times; their tweets were shared with important audiences of influencers and journalists; hundreds were engaged in discussion through Facebook comments. A huge amount of money invested in monitoring an election such as in Zambia only matters if the information gets out to citizens. All this work in online communications got the work of CCMG's 1,500 observers, 50 data clerks, and scores of other organizers and leaders out in front of a far greater number of Zambian citizens.