Eight lessons for social media and politics from Politico, Facebook and media

Ten years ago, staffers thought Al Gore was weird for texting Tipper. Fast forward a decade to late 2010, when any politician who doesn’t use check email on a smartphone or monitor what the media and voters are saying on social media platforms risks being judged out of step. As the midterm elections loom large next month, a large majority of the United States House and Senate are on Facebook. A smaller majority uses Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. While the effectiveness of that usage varies from candidate to candidate, the question of whether social media is a fad is largely settled.

One of the great unanswered questions of this election with respect to social media will be whether fan or follower numbers have any predictive value with respect to elections. Another will be whether more interactive candidates are more successful. What remains is to decide which strategies and tactics will make the difference in winning elections.

Earlier tonight, a panel of experts from media, campaigns and academia came together at George Washington University for “Going Viral: How Campaigns are Using Social Media,” an event jointly sponsored by Politico and Facebook. The panel featured:

What was the high level take away? You can judge yourself: Video of the panel on political campaigns and social media is available at CSPAN and embedded below:

Politico’s own Meredith Shiner reported that “social media still has much to prove.” As Shiner noted, Finn told the audience that “Despite the increased attention paid by the media to political Facebook and Twitter accounts, campaigns today still spend less than 5 percent of their media expenditures online.” Determining whether that spend is consistent across all campaigns would be useful. That said, part of the allure of social media is that it requires an investment in time and expertise, not classical media buys. Sarah Palin, Scott Brown and Barack Obama could use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to achieve awareness of their messages without huge campaign war chests. For underfunded campaigns, using those tools isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

Drawing from those take aways, here are eight more lessons for social media and politics:

1) Politicians have to use social media themselves to realize its full potential. Most campaigns are on Facebook. As Facebook’s Adam Conner pointed out, however, what remains is for candidates to understand tech personally and use it. “When you put a communications manager or staffer in between 140 characters or a Facebook update,” he said, “it’s much less authentic.”

2) Social media is not going away. “It’s the place we all have to be,” said Smith. As citizens turn to the Internet for government data, information, e-services, not to mention news, media and government entities have to “fish where the fish are.”

3) Very few Congressional candidates are doing a good job with these tools. At least, that was Professor Matthew Hindman’s take at the event. Judging from the feeds of many candidates, there’s clearly a learning curve with respect to style, conventions and technical acumen. Posting press releases to Twitter or Facebook does not realize their potential. Neither does treating the platforms the same way. For instance, Finn said that “tweeting from Facebook” is one of her pet peeves. Connor had seen enough “double third person posting” by staff to find it annoying. Voters are likely no different.

4) Social media enables candidates to build the intensity of support. While tweets and updates may not sway independents in of themselves, building strong online communities of supporters can translate into electoral success.

5) Friend power is important. Online, people are increasingly finding news stories from one other on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks, as opposed to through a search engine. That makes creating content with high “shareability” key, whether it’s embeddable videos, polling widgets or tweetable campaign slogans.

6. Leaving negative comments online builds trust, up to a point. In order for voters to see a page is a place for debate, you need to leave as many negative comments up as possible, said de Vellis, with the exception of abusive or pornographic content, which should be moderated. “Leave as much up as much as you can stomach,” said Finn. If the site is a place for supporters, “they’ll jump in and support you.” Conner suggested setting a policy up ahead of time, which a campaign can use to tramp down bad publicity. He said that it’s even more imporatnt to internal staff to have discussions ahead of time to get universal understanding of that policy.

7. This is the year of mobile. Again. As Pew Internet researcher Susannah Fox powerfully articulated in her presentation on the power of mobile this fall, 82 percent of American adults have a cell phone. Six in 10 American adults go online wirelessly with a laptop or mobile device. “Mobile was the final front in the access revolution,” she said. “It has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the Internet for many people. Access isn’t the point anymore. It’s what people are doing with the access that matters.” As important as social media may become to the future of campaigns, reaching voters using email, text messages and calls to their cellphones – good old “Web 1.0″ – is still paramount, along with a ground game to get them to the polls.

8. Candidates who use social media personally are more likely to use it on campaigns and ultimately in governance, says Adam Conner.

Once in office, the challenges of using technology for open government are even greater. Just ask the staffers at the Obama Administration and federal agencies, where open government initiatives in beta are moving from plans to implementation.

Telling the story of social media and politics

Befitting the occasion, below are selected tweets and images from the event, curated using Storify:

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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