Free Market Think Tanks: 2016 Website And Social Media Leaders

Por Alejandro Chafuen: Publicado el 22/2/16 en:


I began tracking the social media presence of free-market think tanks three years ago and shared the results in this column in 2014 and 2015. This past year once again showed growth in most areas, with the exception of website traffic. Think tanks are attracting more followers on their Twitter, Facebook, and even LinkedIn accounts but those who follow them on these social media platforms do not always go to their websites.

The Heritage Foundation ranked first among free-market groups. It ranks ahead Brookings in every social media platform except in its use of LinkedIn. Indeed, while the most recent think tank ranking list Brookings as the top think tank in the world, in the use of social networks, Heritage consistently edges out Brookings.

Below are the winning free-market think tanks in the U.S. and from around the world:

    • Most Facebook likes (U.S.): Heritage Foundation (1,920K); (Non U.S.): Instituto Mises, Brasil (175K)
    • Most Twitter followers (U.S.): Heritage Foundation (540K) ; (Non U.S): CEDICE, Venezuela (77K)
    • Most monthly visitors to website (SimilarWeb, U.S.): Heritage Foundation (2,700K); (Non U.S.): Instituto Mises, Brasil (570K)
  • Most subscribers to YouTube Channel (U.S.): American Enterprise Institute (71K); (Non U.S.): Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (13K)
  • Most views of YouTube video (last 12 months) (U.S.): Acton Institute (343K); (Non U.S.):Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (992K)
  • Most minutes viewed on a You Tube video (last 12 months) (U.S): Heritage (2,473K); (Non U.S.) Fundación Libertad y Progreso (6,274K)

The leaders in free-market media, magazines, and news outlets include:

  • Most Facebook likes: (Media Research Center) (1,972K)
  • Most Twitter followers: Reason (169K)
  • Most monthly visitors to website: National Review (10,600K)
  • Most subscribers to YouTube Channel: Reason (157K)
  • Most views of YouTube video (last 12 months): Daily Signal (Heritage) (599K)
  • Most minutes viewed on a You Tube video (last 12 months): Daily Signal (Heritage) (12,867K)

Among university-affiliated groups, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University leads in most Facebook likes, Twitter followers, You Tube and Website traffic. Among student advocacy organizations, Students for Liberty leads in Facebook likes, and Turning Point USA, despite being founded in 2012, only 4 years ago, ranks first in Twitter followers.FreedomWorks is ahead of Americans for Prosperity among grassroots mobilization organizations, and it leads in all social media platforms except on YouTube and Instagram. Instagram is growing among the younger population. In addition to Americans for Prosperity, Instagram leaders in their category include Mises Institute (US), CEDICE (Venezuela), Hoover, Students for Liberty, and National Review.

You Tube video by Fundación Libertad y Progreso (Argentina) attracted more than one million views.

You Tube video by Fundación Libertad y Progreso (Argentina) attracted more than one million views.

As is natural in such a dynamic and changing social media scene, think tanks are trying different strategies. Some are posting their promotional and advocacy videos on Facebook, rather than on YouTube. For instance, the Mises Institute in Brazil has more than 164,000 views of their video promoting their Master’s Program in Austrian Economics on Facebook, while their most popular video uploaded to YouTube has less than 5,000 views. Videos on Facebook, however, tend to be much shorter than on YouTube, which has no length limit. Fundación Libertad y Progreso, from Argentina, produced a very popular short video against Latin American populism, which starred young Guatemalan libertarian activist Gloria Alvarez. It was viewed close to one million times, and helped boost the number of subscribers to their You Tube channel to over 13,000. It defeated all the 2015 pro-free society promotional videos around the world.

In countries where freedom of the press is under attack, Twitter has become the premiere media outlet for think tanks. CEDICE, the courageous think tank in beleaguered Venezuela, continues to be the best example of this phenomenon. With 77,000 Twitter followers, CEDICE ranks first among foreign think tanks.

Unlike other social media platforms, which have gained significant traction over the past decade, LinkedIn has yet to leave its mark regarding Latin American think tanks. At least in the world of think tanks, LinkedIn is still primarily used as a tool for recruiters rather than as a platform for the dissemination of research or advocacy papers. Yet over the past few years, the number of LinkedIn followers has grown more than other social media platforms. The leading free-market think tanks have seen their followers increase by over 50%. Heritage’s followers increased by 61%, Cato’s by 52%. The Mises Institute (U.S.), which lags behind the others in number of followers, grew at 77%. Among foreign think tanks, the Fraser Institute saw a 72% increase. I only recently began tracking American Enterprise Institute’s growth, so I do not have their year-to-year numbers, but with over 7,500 followers, they have surpassed Cato among market-oriented institutes to reach second place (after Heritage).

During the past year, I estimate that leading free-market think tanks attracted, on average, 20% more Twitter followers and on average, 20% more “likes.” (Facebook “likes” is a cumulative figure; very few people “unlike” a Facebook page). Foreign think tanks saw 50% more “likes.” Something similar happened with YouTube subscribers, which grew 20% on average for the leading U.S. think tanks and more than double that percentage for foreign groups. Yet, as stated above, this growth on social media platforms has not translated into an increase in web visitors. According to SimilarWebtraffic numbers most organizations saw their website traffic stagnate or go down close to 10%.

When it comes to LinkedIn, free-market think tanks are far ahead of their competitors in the academy and in media. Mercatus continues to lead in followers among academic-based think tanks, and National Review among on-line magazines, but they all ranked much lower than Heritage, Cato, or AEI.

As I did in my previous articles, I shared my data with two of my favorite experts, Michael Rae, who has built and hosted dozens of think tank websites, and IESE’s Emma Alvarez, asking for their insights on the evolution in think tank’s social media efforts. When analyzing these numbers, Rae comments: “The success of some groups to gain larger ‘view’ numbers from a significantly smaller subscriber base … indicates to me more engaging taglines and content from the smaller group. Content remains king.”

Think tanks continue to have trouble capturing the Twitter traffic of some of their most public stars, and something similar is occurring with LinkedIn. Alvarez, the social media manager at IESE business school, points at the failure of some groups to manage their multiple accounts properly: “Even if there are some think tanks profiles on LinkedIn, most of them don’t have the direct link to the homepage.” Out of a sample of 28 pro-free market organizations, most of them leaders in their field, only eight “have a direct link from their homepage [and] Fraser Institute and CIDAC are the only ones who have the links to LinkedIn on the header.” LinkedIn allows organizations to create company profiles as well as groups. Alvarez adds that the home pages of Adam Smith Institute and Students for Liberty, for example, link to LinkedIn group, rather than the company page, and “Libertad y Progreso to a personal profile and not to the company page.”

Social media data gathered last week of March and first week of February 2016. Sofie O'Mara and Mariana Zepeda conducted research for this piece.

Social media data gathered last week of January and first week of February 2016.

According to Alvarez, think tanks have yet to build a stronger presence on this platform. Universities are doing better. She described LinkedIn’s strategy to attract a younger audience that will use this platform to “help” them select a college. LinkedIn features a school’s notable alumni prominently, channeling resources like their career recommendations and for “engagement for asking questions or connecting with the campus community,” toward promoting traffic for the school. LinkedIn’s internal search algorithm prioritizes the university page result, so one tends to find a person’s university affiliation before their company or employer. Only organizations with an .edu suffix can have a LinkedIn university account, so to take advantage of this special treatment of colleges and universities, think tanks with educational programs could start their own web addresses with an .edu suffix. Acton Institute, Cato, Mises Institute,the Atlas Network, and other free-market organizations which have their own “universities” or “master’s program” could pick an appropriate website address specific to this platform. But LinkedIn has first to approve their inclusion as “universities.” Brookings, which is the only think tank with an .edu suffix, still does not have a university page. Having students pass through educational programs is essential for being approved by LinkedIn. The fact still remains that unless sub-pages are properly and intelligently linked to the organization’s home page, they might fail to drive traffic to their main website.

Like other experts who spend their time trying to measure whether or not social media presence translates into public policy impact, Michael Rae realizes that these platforms’ immediacy and transitory feel create a challenge for think tanks. “In a world of short attention spans,” Rae argues, “the fleeting tweet, the passing item on your timeline suits the users’ world better than the visit to a website, or checking your email. Email seems to demand engagement, as does the website, whereas the tweet needs only a cursory glance.”

Free-market think tanks are spending tens of millions of dollars in social media, and there is still much to improve in transparency and in proper measurement of outcomes. Tracking email subscribers and measuring their interactions and relevance, should complement any analysis. This type of data, however, if collected, is seldom shared outside the organizations. Until this changes, the combined data of traffic measured by each of the platforms is our best shot at understanding which think tanks are doing a better job at getting the freedom message out to the public.


Alejandro A. Chafuén es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), es miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Fue profesor de ESEADE.

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