Communicating with 'Influentials'

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Why campaigns can't afford to ignore offline conversations in the digital age


These days it often seems that a candidate’s viability for election is determined by the number of re-tweets, Facebook likes or Google+ followers they pile up over any given period. On second thought, the last one isn’t so important.

There’s no question that social media outreach is key when it comes to delivering a candidate’s message, but word-of-mouth contact is still king (or queen) even in this digital age. 

But how does a campaign find voters who will spread their message organically? The answer lies in finding the “influentials” in any given community.

According to sociologist Ed Keller, “One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy.” We all know these kinds of people in our lives—the active grandmother rallying the other “church ladies” to support a local ballot question, or maybe it’s the outspoken T-Ball coach dishing out political opinions in between innings.

Take my own mother for example. Bubbie, as my four-year old calls her, doesn’t operate with a 140 character limit when it comes to discussing issues in her community. I once asked her how many people she talks to about elections and she answered, “Oh, just a couple hundred folks. But I don’t count the people who call me and listen to my answering machine message about who they should vote for.” 

Now, Bubbie doesn’t have a Facebook account, has never read a blog in her life and thinks a tweet is something that comes out of a bird, but finding people like her—who often fly under the radar—is critical for campaigns. Again, Keller points out in his research, “84% of Influentials are interested in politics, which is 30 points higher than the general public, and 55% of Influentials are asked about their opinions on politics on a regular basis.”

Unlike most indictors that determine how or if a voter will cast their ballot, finding influential requires a tried and true approach through direct voter contact, either in person or over the phone. The way our firm finds these natural spokespeople and surrogates is through a key phone ID tool that we’ve developed over the past few cycles.

Traditionally, we find that about 16 percent of those we ID on this question talk to 6 or more folks outside of their own household about politics. For your campaign to be successful, it should be targeting influentials with additional briefing materials, solicitations for donations, volunteers and emails or phone calls from senior campaign officials.

The “super influentials”, or those individuals with major celebrity status, should be contacted by the candidate themselves. 

A mini-case study to illustrate the point: Sen. Claire McCaskill’s 2006 campaign. We worked with McCaskill that year on a 600,000 person ID program trying to find influentials who could carry her message in rural parts of the state. 

Those we identified as influentials were called by volunteers and asked to make a commitment to stand up for Claire if they heard anyone say something negative about her or the campaign’s message. We also sent these supporters additional information from the campaign.

Anecdotally, there were many stories of voters defending Claire in rural communities when opponents would get up and accuse her of trying to “take away our guns”—an attack that proved effective during her 2004 bid for governor.

In 2006, the campaign deputized thousands of rural influential in an attempt to counter the guns attack. These folks received extra attention from the campaign—they were courted by volunteers and high level surrogates, and some were even called by the candidate herself.

In the end, McCaskill was successful in her 2006 Senate bid, due in large degree to tightening the margins in rural Missouri. The lesson: social media can serve as a tremendous echo chamber when it comes to amplifying your candidate’s message, but if you truly want to deputize influentials, make sure they hear your voice.

Marty Stone is a partner at the Democratic firm Stones’ Phones. This post is the first in a series examining the importance of “influentials” for campaigns. The next post will focus on new data from the writers of “The Influentials”, Ed Keller and Brad Fray.


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