C&E: What is the most effective social media strategy for a campaign?

Phillips: Social media is a tool for political campaigns and like any tool; the key is understanding how to use it.  Just like we shouldn’t use a screw driver to drive in a nail, political campaigns have to know exactly how to use a social media tool before it becomes valuable.

If you spend a lot of your time tweeting, but you only have 200 followers on Twitter, you could probably find a better use of your time reaching voters. However, today there’s the expectation that you’re on Facebook, because so many voters are.  Nearly a third of the country uses Facebook, so it’s a natural place for your followers to be. 

Political campaigns want to first and foremost persuade voters, so they are using online ads, ads within web sites and blogs and search engine ads to ensure that they get their names in front of voters where they are spending more and more of their time – online. Toward the end of a political campaign, you’ll still see a lot of direct mail and phone calls – along with television and radio ads.  Those tried and true methods are still the bedrock of voter contact.

C&E: Is there such a thing as too much social media exposure?

Phillips: It’s not so much too much exposure as it is getting the right kind of exposure.  A lot of political campaigns dream of going viral, coming up with the ad that takes off and becomes the national sensation. In almost every case, though, Americans are laughing at and not with the subjects of viral videos.

Phil Davison was running for a local office and gave one of the most memorable speeches ever, but mostly because it was a major meltdown.  The video went viral – 1.6 million YouTube views. So I wouldn’t say the concern was too much as much as it is too quickly.  Twitter is instant, and in hindsight you might want a vetting process. If you were to issue a press release, the idea would have to pass muster and then the wording gives you some time to think about what you’re saying. Twitter is instant and in some cases could be instantly regrettable. On the other hand, it’s another tool to allow you to get your message out, especially to supporters.

C&E: What can a local, municipal level candidate with little in the way of funding do today to increase their social media presence in an effective way?

Phillips: This I think is the real key to the power of social media.  It can be very, very cost effective. And if you’re talking about a race decided by just a few hundred votes, then organizing and fundraising using smart online tools makes a lot of sense and can complement the nuts and bolts of a campaign. 

At the local level, supporters are engaged online and will be anticipating candidates who are active in social media. But if they aren’t going to be running television ads, then you might see them gain a bit of traction on social media. The problem of course if that too few people pay attention to these races, so while much of America is spending time checking the virtual status of their friends and family, the local candidate still needs to become known. I’d recommend handshakes and pressing the flesh well ahead of pressing to publish in a new media forum. And if they have just a little money for ads, I’d consider investing in online ads.  Radio and television can be expensive, so they’re likely to get a lot of bang for their buck but looking at online ads.

A campaign’s strength online doesn’t necessarily tell us how well that campaign is doing over all: in California: Carly Fiorina has 304,000 Twitter followers compared to Barbara Boxer’s 23,000 followers.  But the race is trending toward Boxer.

In Florida, Marco Rubio has more Twitter followers than Charlie Crist (the Independent) and Kendrick Meek (the Democrat) combined.  (16,835 to roughly 12,600).  He has also received about three times as many Facebook likes as his opponents combined.

Sooner or later, anything trendy makes its way to the world of politics. This year, it's been the advent of the microblog. Hundreds of politicians have flocked to the microblogging services like Facebook and Twitter over the past few months, heralding its ability to help them keep in touch with folks back home. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even dropped by Twitter's headquarters last month to praise it for the services the site offers politicians to communicate with constituents. But for every pol that's mastered the art of the status update, others (including Schwarzenegger) have watched it backfire, earning them far more unflattering press than they bargained for. David Graham wrote a feature in Newsweek called “Gaffe by Tweet: Top 10 Social-Media Slip-Ups” we’ve seen from politicos this year—at least so far. It is worth a read.

John Aristotle Phillips serves as Chairman of the Board of Aristotle International, the campaign technology firm. Mr. Phillips is a member of, and has addressed the membership of the International Association of Political Consultants, the European Association of Political Consultants and the American Association of Political Consultants. Additionally, he has chaired or served on panels for Campaigns and Elections Magazine, and numerous campaign boot camps for the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Mr. Phillips graduated from Princeton University in 1978 with a Bachelors of Science Degree in Aerospace Engineering. While at Princeton, Mr. Phillips received international recognition for his design, from publicly available documents, of an atomic bomb. He is the co-author of Mushroom: the Story of the A-Bomb Kid, which was sold to a television network for a made-for-television movie. He resides in San Francisco.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com