Ten years ago, the hottest thing in political campaigns was the Internet. Political consultants and candidates touted the promise of the Internet and e-mail in changing the face of campaigns. As with most innovations, proponents of web-based campaigning oversold the medium, suggesting that, within a year or two, campaigns would raise most of their money, and spend much of their time, exclusively online.
While those pundits were wrong about the Internet ending fundraising direct mail, in-person grassroots campaigning, and huge amounts of candidate travel, they were right about one thing: the Internet did eventually change the way candidates campaign. This fact was most evident in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, where the candidates raised vast sums of money online (but still raised most of their money offline) and had major web presences and online grassroots communities (yet still did the majority of their campaigning on TV and in person around the country). (For more info on successfully using the Internet in your campaign, read How to Find Political Success on the Internet).
Today, the hottest medium in all of politics is the social web… tools like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are becoming an increasing focus of campaigns at all levels, from school board to the Senate. Once again, there are consulting firms and talking heads that are telling us that social media sites will replace many of the tools campaigns have come to rely on, including “in person” grassroots organizations, fundraising mail, and huge TV advertising budgets. I’ve even heard one candidate suggest that campaigns with big social media presences will no longer need websites and e-mail lists – innovations that only became standard for campaigns less than a decade ago. What’s the truth about using social media networks in your campaign – and how can you best utilize them?
Why Social Media Matters in Political Campaigns
O.k., let’s get this out there first: social media sites and tools matter for your political campaign. As their usage becomes more widespread among the public at large, more and more voters will use these sites to become engaged with the political process. It’s the same route that the political internet at large followed – once a significant portion of the voting public started using the Internet, it was inevitable that they would seek out political information and community on the Net.
The same holds true for social networks – as more and more voters have started to use sites like Facebook on a weekly or daily basis (many people use it far more often than that) it was inevitable that political communities would pop up and that people would seek to engage other like-minded voters through the resources of these sites. Social media sites are here, and they are growing steadily in popularity – campaigns must be engaged and involved in a way that helps the candidate win without draining too many resources from other campaign activities.
What Social Media Sites Are Not…
So social networking sites are here to stay, and campaigns would be wise to efficiently integrate them into their campaign strategy. Will social media sites spell the end of old-fashioned campaign tactics? Should campaigns abandon town hall meetings in lieu of online gatherings? Is it necessary for campaigns to stop spending 80% of their communications budgets to TV and direct mail advertising and instead spend 80% on designing and maintaining a social networking presence?
The answer to all of those questions is no. Much as the Internet did before them, social media sites will forever change the political landscape, but they will not spell the end of politics as we know it. Campaigns should stick to the basics, and instead of throwing out the old tactics to adopt the new, candidates and campaigns would be wise to integrate social media campaigning into the rest of their campaign plan. The campaigns that best integrate their communications strategies as whole, including TV, radio, direct mail, print, Internet, e-mail, and social networks, will be the campaigns that reap the biggest rewards from tools like Facebook and Twitter.
In short, campaigns that focus solely on social media sites and the Internet will likely fail. Similarly, campaigns that eschew social media sites and refuse to establish a significant web presence will likely suffer.
How to Successfully Use Social Media in Your Campaign
To successfully utilize social networking sites into your campaign, your social media strategy needs to be part of an overall campaign plan, and must fit within the that plan as part of the “complete picture” of your campaign. The following five tips will help you effectively use social networking in your political campaign:
1. Pick Your Battles
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of social networking sites out there. In order to efficiently use your campaign resources without tying up dozens of staff members, focus on a few of the most popular sites and establish a quality presence there – remember, because these sites are so interactive, you’ll need to focus on quality, not quantity. No one wants to interact with a campaign that puts up hundreds of shoddy social pages that never get any new content or personal attention.
2. Consistency Counts
Your social networking presence should be integrated with your overall campaign communications – that means your color schemes should match as much as possible, your voice and tone should be consistent, and your campaign message must remain constant across all mediums.
3. Message Matters
Speaking of message – remember that your campaign message is the focal point of all of your campaign’s activities… including online. Be sure your message is front and center on your website, in your e-mails, and as part of your social networking presence.
4. Engagement is Key
Unlike TV, radio, direct mail, and even your website, social networking sites are not “advertising” per se. You can’t design a page on Facebook and then “set it and forget it.” The only way social media sites will work for a political campaign is through engagement. You’ll need to post new stories, connect with new people, answer questions and be engaged. For most medium-sized campaigns, a member of the staff should be doing this work, not the candidate. Your press secretary or someone from your communications staff may be the right person, depending on the size of your campaign.
Balance is important in your communications efforts. Many candidates spend far too much time on Twitter or Facebook, and neglect grassroots rallies, fundraising calls, and small events. Other old-school candidates can’t be bothered with social media sites, and refuse to allow their staff to spend time “playing online.” Avoid both extremes – include social media interaction as part, but not all, of your overall communications strategy.