In the Information Age, the campaign adage “all politics is local” is no longer adequate. These days, it’s more accurate to say “all politics is social.”
This summer, I completed my last piece of homework – my honors thesis – and graduated from college.
My thesis, which is more of a project than a paper, is a social media guide for political campaigns. Nonpartisan and aimed at state and local campaigns specifically, All Politics Is Social goes beyond the basics and explains social media strategy, incorporating academic and industry research as well as interviews with experts in Texas politics.
The following is an excerpt from the first section. Stay tuned for more excerpts and the full 46-page guide for download coming soon.
Why Should I Bother With Social Media?
Think of it this way: You’re not (I assume) going to refuse to buy Jif peanut butter because they don’t have a Twitter account. But if you follow Some Other Brand on a whim one day, you’ll get to experience the cool things they have to say. Do you think you’d be more likely to buy a jar of Some Other Brand peanut butter just to try?
By strategically and effectively using social media, political candidates can share their messaging with a potentially huge number of voters, as well as gain the support of prominent online activists who can use their own reach and influence to promote them.
Social media penetrates all demographics and is particularly friendly to political marketing. After Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign launched social networking into the political eye, and later Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s upset victory in 2010 thanks to nationwide online support, social media has become a prominent and crucial component of campaign management. Its speed and interactivity make it different from other communication platforms and uniquely suited to outreach and calls to action.
Social media users are more politically engaged than non-users: they are two times more likely to vote, two times more likely to volunteer for campaigns, six times more likely to attend a meeting or rally, and five times more likely to actively recruit others to join causes and campaigns.[i] During the 2010 elections, more than half of all Internet users “went online to engage in a campaign-related activity like watching a political video; fact check a political claim; or share and discuss information.”[ii] Even senior citizens, who are the most active voting bloc and typically stereotyped as anything but tech-savvy, use social media. Recent statistics indicate the “gray market” spends more time online than any other age group and is more likely to use social media on mobile devices.[iii]
And finally, perhaps most importantly: people are talking about you online, whether you want them to or not. Candidates who choose to ignore social media lose a major opportunity to respond to criticism and drive the online conversation.
Despite this, many campaigns still see social media as an afterthought. Facebook and Twitter are not a replacement for boots-on-the-ground campaign activity and getting voters to the polls on Election Day. But having an active, effective social media presence is one of the simplest ways to connect with new audiences, recruit supporters and key influencers, and encourage real-world action. It is a vital component of campaign communications.
The History of Social Media and Politics
In 2009, only 69 U.S. Congressmen had Twitter accounts. Two years later, that number skyrocketed to 134. Now, social media has become an expected component of candidates’ and politicians’ marketing.[iv]
Initially, most used social media as “vehicles for self-promotion” to regurgitate press releases and talking points, but the most successful politicians online have since begun emphasizing two-way communication with users. This communicative aspect of social media is perfect for politics. The purpose of social media is not to regurgitate the content of campaign emails or ads, but to really connect with voters in a way few other mediums allow.
Barack Obama is widely credited as the first candidate to embrace social media. The campaign’s willingness to dive into new technologies set him apart from his opponents in both parties and appealed especially to young voters.
“They had a great candidate, Obama, just when the tools were evolving,” said Mark McKinnon, advisor to Democratic and Republican candidates from Governor Ann Richards to President George W. Bush and presidential hopeful Senator John McCain. “But these things shift and the party out of power is always hungrier and learns to adapt.”
Since then, politicians and interested voters in both parties have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and a multitude of other social networks to express their opinions and gather information.
As social media has evolved, it has developed three main functions:
- Interaction: Through online networks, people can create discussions about any topic and keep in touch with others all around the world – or just around the district.
- Discovery: Through their connections, people can also learn about new things, including candidates they may not have heard of or given much thought.
- Reinforcement: As people are repeatedly exposed to a particular message, it becomes more familiar and, hopefully for marketers and campaigns, more acceptable.
An advisor to the Obama campaign says just having a social media presence in 2008 was enough – but not anymore. In the 2012 elections and beyond, the political climate will be profoundly influenced by who can leverage social media most effectively to inform, inspire, and motivate voters.
And that’s where you come in.
[i] “Political Fundraising in the Social Media Era [Infographic].” MDG Advertising. 5 March 2012. Web. 18 March 2012.
[ii] Preston, Jennifer. “Internet Users Turned to Social Networks in Elections, Survey Finds.” Media Decoder. The New York Times, 17 March 2011. Web. 18 March 2012.
[iii] Richards, Steve. “Social and the gray market.” Econsultancy. 23 February 2012. Web. 17 March 2012.
[iv] Parmelee, John H. and Shannon L. Bichard. Politics and the Twitter Revolution: How Tweets Influence the Relationship between Political Leaders and the Public. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012. 8. Print.