Do you know your voters?

Google Trends and Yahoo’s Buzz Index are for many tools that they have known for some time now. After talking to a few local politicians (who, by the way, were still not able to do much more than dial a number on their smartphones), I realised that these insightful tools are actually not very well-known among those who may need it the most for their career: our political representatives. Many countries are experiencing a tendency that constituents are loosing their interest for politics. One of the reasons is that politicians are not embracing the topics that are on the minds of people. As voter participation rates have dropped to all time lows in various countries, some officials are now rethinking how they look for topics that are relevant to voters. Politicians have several traditional options: they can hit the streets and talk, look into survey’s and opinion polls, or just wait for the election – just to name a few. However, today, they can also use tools, such as Trends or the Buzz Index. Here are two quick explanations to both:
  • The Buzz Index analyses the search trends on Yahoo and creates a news-ticker-like log that displays the biggest topics on any given day. If you wonder how these topics are ranked, here is the official explanation from Yahoo!: “A subject’s buzz index score is the percentage of users searching for that subject on a given day, multiplied by a constant to make the number easier to read. More precisely, each point is equal to 0.001% of users searching on Yahoo on a given day. For example, a buzz index score of 500 for “Pokemon” translates to 0.5% of all users searching on Yahoo For buzz movers, the number displayed is the percentage increase in the subject’s buzz score from the previous day”.
  • Google Trends allows you to enter search terms into the tool and then provides data on how often your term was searched for during a distinct time frame. The graphs are fitted with links to news reports for when the queries have spiked. In addition, there is also the option to see the regions where the term was searched for.

The picture above shows how Google Trends for Google News searches presents its data. The term “Turkey” received a spike in late November due to the American thanksgiving holiday. However, there was also a smaller spike during the year due to the news of the ongoing demonstrations in Turkey. This data is based on world-wide searches. If you were to look at searches in Germany for example, the spike would not be as prevalent during thanksgiving and probably be larger during key moments of the Turkish crisis – particularly due to the large Turkish population living in Germany.

Now, how can politicians use these tools and what are the limitations?

Let’s start with what these tools cannot do. Neither one can look into the minds of all (as these tools use the internet as a data source and do not fully integrate the opinions and thoughts of those still offline. Also, they cannot predict all upcoming opinions and important topics of voters (despite the fact that Google Trends does have a built-in “Forecast” option).

However, these tools can detect trends and patterns based on the data available. On the basis of historic data, one can than extrapolate a plausible outcome or future scenario. A widely discussed example is the last presidential election in the US. The amount of times certain keywords are searched for in the pre-election days and weeks can give a picture about the sentiment for one candidate over another (of course knowing that not all voters use Google Search – if we take Google Trends as an example). But the tools can do more.

With the geographic filtering option, Google Trends can depict how electoral districts differ in terms of what topics are important to their constituents. The Buzz Index can give a daily overview of what to watch out for during todays press conference. The Index also categorizes the news in various areas, such as finance or sports. This is handy particularly in the last days of the election, where topics tend to come up that may distort a voters preference for a particular candidate. In this case, candidates must react quick to not lose votes. Having a clear and up-to-date understanding is certainly essential.

Despite the limitations, the tools can indeed give our representatives a better understanding of what topics have been on our minds lately. They are nothing new to professional campaign strategists for large elections. They were used during the last presidential elections in the US for example. However, I was astonished to learn during the short talk with the politicians that these tools are by no means a common practice. I therefore have a suggestion:

Most politicians convene at party conventions from time to time to discuss party agendas, align budgets and enjoy free cocktails. I would add a break-out session to the schedule and invite those colourful t-shirt wearing geeks and let them explain what topics are on the minds of the people. Or, at least give them the 5 minutes to explain how to use these tools – and if there is time, maybe they can also explain that smartphones can do more than make and receive phones calls.


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