We know that social media works for big campaigns, but how do we make it work for campaigns at all levels? Looking at the top of the ticket campaigns (Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, Scott Brown, etc.) that have gotten the most attention for using new media effectively, a few common themes are apparent: they spend a lot of money and they are constantly active in various social media channels. If you’re farther down the ticket and even farther down the budget scale, the “spend a lot of money” option probably isn’t very attractive. If you’re a smaller campaign, you’re probably also not flush with lots of extra time and staff. So let’s make sure you avoid some common pitfalls that can tax your resources:

Not having a coherent message. Hourly tweets or a shocking video rarely compensate for not having something meaningful to say. We’ve seen some clever campaign videos this primary season (including sheep, rifles, strong men, boy bands, and pauses) that have gotten national coverage, but so far none have demonstrated that digital buzz translates into ballot box success. Whether or not you manage to “hit the viral button” you still need to explain why voters should elect you after the viral wave subsides. If you first figure out what you want to say, your social media roadmap will be easier to plot.
 
Treating social media as an afterthought. Having coffee with a supporter may not warrant a media alert, but if you don’t publicize the moment, it will always be a missed opportunity. Fundamentally, social media is about having conversations and making connections with supporters as the opportunities arise. You may not have every moment scripted, but you need to be paying attention and know when to speak up and shout out. Encourage everyone on your team to share the responsibility for being aware of “social moments” so that the opportunities to engage supporters will be more apparent and your online conversation will become more natural. Taking your social media objectives into account as you plan out the candidate’s day will avoid those head-smacking moments when you get the idea for a great photo or video after you forgot to bring the camera.
 
Delegating social media to the lowliest intern. Making your social media strategy just another campaign checklist item may get you a consistent stream of status updates and tweets, but treating social media as a low-level task presents dangers both coming and going. Unless you’re screening every comment and tweet, you risk publishing something that might not be exactly what the candidate should have said (or sometimes not even close to what the candidate should have said). On the inbound side, if the people interacting with your online supporters aren’t clued in to your strategy, you can be missing valuable opportunities to connect with supporters or even the inspiration for that breakout opportunity.
 
Spreading yourself too thin. Having lots of social media buttons on your website may look hip, but skimming the surface of the newest and coolest online tools could turn your social media initiatives into anchors dragging down your campaign rather than the winds that fill your sails. Metrics are important too, just make sure they are real and not just check boxes. It is not about the number of Facebook fans your campaign has, but what those fans are doing to drive your campaign’s message to other voters. It’s more important to understand what you are really trying to achieve—connecting with volunteers, donors and voters—and to be realistic about your resources. Put 100 percent effort into planning and executing those activities that have the highest likelihood of succeeding in the context of your particular campaign.
 
As a small campaign, triggering a breakout “viral” moment is like winning the lottery—great if it happens, but for the most part, highly unlikely. As a down-ballot campaign, you are far better served by building an online plan that you can consistently execute every day: blogging, e-mailing, tweeting, social networking and whatever else realistically fits your campaign.
 
Steve Pearson is President of CivicNEXT, which provides practical networking, communications and fundraising solutions for political campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell, a 2010 Rising Star, is president of ProjectVirginia, winner of the 2010 Reed Award for Best Use of Twitter and whose blog reports on “Where Politics Meets Social Media.”