The Untapped Potential of Social Media: A Primer for Savvy Campaigners

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In the 2010 cycle, many political campaigns took their messages to the social media sphere.


In the 2010 cycle, many political campaigns took their messages to the social media sphere. Unfortunately, many also failed to appreciate the new media’s inherently dynamic ability to foster interaction with voters and instead grafted onto social media platforms a one-way messaging strategy developed for e-mail, phone and mail communications. This strategy failed to take advantage of the opportunity offered by social media to open up genuine, two-way lines of communication with nanotargeted voters who participate in online niche communities. If targeted, such voters would gladly help spread the campaign’s message and come to comprise an ad-hoc network of online volunteers. Such a strategy was used somewhat effectively by the 2008 Obama campaign, but there is great untapped potential for further development through taking advantage of advances made since 2008 by the social media marketing and advertising communities.

Traditional political communication of the sort used in mailings, phone calls, newspaper editorials, television ads and mass e-mails is generally tailored to cast a large net so as to simultaneously retain current supporters and gain new ones. As a result, these one-size-fits-all messages tend to be overly impersonal and general. In short, they are unsuited for the new media environment, whose natives have grown to expect more personalized, dynamic and interactive communications. Campaigns that continue to send impersonal messages out into the new media environment are wasting their time and money, while savvier operatives would be advised to develop messages targeted to the specific interests and sensibility of potential supporters in the new media sphere. Once you have piqued an online niche audience’s interest, its members will happily spread your message by posting it on other new media sites or passing it on to friends and acquaintances via the already middle-aged medium of e-mail. The key is to find a way to mobilize online networks that have already formed around a common cause or goal.

Much of the current understanding of social media communications in political campaigns comes from the 2008 electoral cycle, when these media were just getting off the ground. During that cycle, the Obama campaign focused on connecting with voters through a unified online presence. New YouTube videos also appeared as Facebook posts, and new Facebook posts were also tweeted. By doing this the Obama campaign delivered the content supporters wanted in the format they wanted it. Further, the Obama campaign used social media platforms to encourage voters to participate in and organize campaign activities such as house parties where like-minded voters would gather to watch campaign events or participate in phone banks.

Meanwhile, as detailed in a February 2009 article in this magazine by Josh Koster, the 2008 Al Franken for Senate campaign adopted a “long-tail” nanotargeting strategy in advertising on Google AdSense, allowing the campaign to spend less than $20,000 to get more than 20,000 individuals to read campaign-related literature, 5,500 to sign up for a campaign e-mail list and, most importantly, 2,500 to donate. Long-tail nanotargeting involves targeting many small online niches with messages tailored to their particular interests instead of sending out a generic message to everyone. The Franken campaign’s online ads targeted users based on keywords that appeared in their Google searches. In practice, this meant that Minnesotans who searched for information about cheap gas or fuel-efficient cars saw ads about how Franken proposed to lower gas prices, while those who searched for information on “feed stores” or “farm supply” saw ads geared toward farmers.

In 2010, nearly every campaign used the strategies developed by the Obama campaign, and some ventured into long-tail nanotargeting, but very few drew on the new datasets and paradigms created by social media marketing and advertising groups to engage existing and potential supporters in dynamic and interactive ways. Businesses have found that the ability of customers (and potential customers) to connect with them in a comfortable, low-pressure manner via new media helps build stronger, deeper, more loyal relationships, which leads to more business. For example, in 2009 H&R Block saw its business grow significantly after using Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to promote customer interactivity through its “Get It Right” program. Also in 2009, Best Buy found that social media efforts, including its Twitter-based helpdesk, Twelpforce, on which employees could respond directly to customer questions—and customers could search through previous exchanges—were bringing the company nearly $5 million in benefits. Both companies realized gains by adopting cutting-edge methods that allowed company representatives to interact with customers and potential customers on a personal level in real time without having to go through the company’s normal communication bureaucracy. This allowed these companies to build relationships with customers by quickly responding to their queries and concerns.

Given that nearly a quarter of time spent online is spent on social networks, according to the market research firm Nielsen, campaigns that emulate the approach of businesses such as H&R Block and Best Buy can potentially realize a huge return on their investment. Unfortunately, campaigns in 2010 failed to do so. Instead, they approached platforms such as Twitter with the same conservative outlook that pervades mass-mailings and other traditional communications. With over 170 million Americans over the age of fifteen accessing social media platforms each month, and an estimated 35 percent of all new media users reporting some involvement in the 2010 elections, according to the Pew Research Center, it is hard to understate the potential audience that campaigns are leaving untapped by failing to develop their new media strategies.

A new media platform like Twitter is ready-made for long-tail nanotargeting since tweets are searchable by hashtag—a word or abbreviation placed into a tweet after a pound sign to indicate its topic. For instance, a tweet including the hashtag #moratorium has something to do with the movement calling for a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, while one including #NY20 relates to the race for New York State’s 20th congressional district. Ad-hoc communities organize around certain hashtags, making them easy to target with messages tailored specifically to their interests. However, many 2010 campaigns made the mistake of employing election-oriented hashtags, such as #NY20, rather than niche-specific ones, such as moratorium. Those voters who searched for tweets marked with #NY20 were in all likelihood political diehards already strongly committed to a candidate, while those deeply committed to stopping offshore drilling and following tweets marked with #moratorium would have included more likely converts. Marking tweets with niche-specific hashtags has the further advantage of allowing a campaign to reach donors and online activists outside the campaign’s geographic area, potentially bringing increased funding and attention to the race.

But long-tail nanotargeting strategies can go beyond hashtags. Twitter is like a neighborhood in which each user’s door is marked with enough information on their interests, acquaintances and influences that an experienced campaign operative can predict their voting tendencies and help determine whether they are worth interacting with. Campaigns can also find more potential targets for outreach by searching the “followers” and “following” lists of supporters, news organizations and non-profit and public organizations whose missions align with the candidate’s positions. Gathering this information and using it in a sensible way is the challenge. Most campaigns do not have the resources to devote a handful of people to manually sorting through lists of Twitter users. However, business has begun to develop automated data mining tools that take Web data and convert it to useful business intelligence. IBM’s Big-Sheets is just one example of a tool that can sort through new media data to discover users likely to be interested in a given subject and help businesses target those specific users.

Even without powerful data mining tools, savvy 2012 campaigns will approach a new media platform like Twitter differently from how most 2010 campaigns did. Spending a few seconds to read the signs on users’ doors to make sure environmental advocates hear about oil spills, not marriage equality, and gay rights advocates hear about marriage equality, not oil spills, can only help a campaign. Interacting with new media followers will help a campaign forge stronger relationships with voters. New media users post, repost, tweet, retweet, comment and interact with each other constantly. Users who feel a deep connection with a person or brand are happy to show their public support and provide free marketing for that person or brand through their online activities. Campaigns that are able to forge strong relationships with voters can build and sustain ad-hoc networks of online volunteers working to spread the campaign message throughout their online community, just as the Obama campaign’s millions of volunteers organized and spread his message throughout the country.

Developing new media strategies can also help campaigns with another goal, dealing with adversarial political bloggers. These bloggers are the bane of communication directors’ existences. Any rumor, no matter how absurd, can be presented as fact on any adversarial blog at any time. Soon enough, that rumor may be reprinted in papers and discussed on cable television as if it were fact. The story will have gone viral, leaving the campaign with a massive PR mess to clean up. Now imagine if the campaign had had a legion of friendly online forces prepared to challenge the rumor before it took off. In a profession in which even a single percentage point of the vote can be decisive, the ability to defend against gadflies is essential.

In the last few years, new media platforms have grown explosively. While many campaigns have begun to devote staff to cultivating online support, they still have a long way to go. Campaigns that manage to tap the full potential of social networking platforms will have an ad-hoc network of online volunteers prepared to assist them. While new media platforms may not have swung an election yet, there is plenty of evidence from the social media marketing and advertising communities to suggest that when used effectively, they can help sway voters’ opinions and potentially move the polls the crucial few points that could make the difference between defeat and victory.

Natch Greyes is a Democratic strategist who has advised campaigns on social media strategy


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