Why This Probably Won't Be the Year of the Tweet in Politics
Published: July 23, 2012
Author: Molly Shotwell
By Anthony Young, Director of Online Acquisition at SnapLogic
“Social media is like teen sex. Everyone wants to do it. No one actually knows how. When finally done, there is a surprise it’s not better.” — Tweet from Avinash Kaushik
This year’s presidential election has already been dubbed the “The Social Media Election.” Dick Costolo, CEO and co-founder of Twitter, went further in declaring it the “Twitter Election Year,” adding “candidates that don’t participate on Twitter while the conversation is happening will be left behind.”
This statement caught my attention because back in the mid ’90s I was budget manager on the Clinton/Gore ’96 Reelection Campaign and later served as a political appointee in the second Clinton Administration. These experiences have taught me that the relationship between politics and new technology is often an awkward courtship. Both parties have mastered TV and print media, often playing them like a well-tuned orchestra to their benefit. Avinash’s tweet, cynical and humorous as it is, points to serious issues around the true ROI of social media and what metrics are meaningful.
We live in a representative democracy. Today’s voters are given unprecedented access to the candidates and their positions, allowing citizens to litigate ideas and policies in the court of public opinion. Some politicians are already grumbling about policies in the idea phase ending up dead on arrival because of public scrutiny. The nervous politician says what?
Costolo’s comments resonate chiefly because of the need for speed when responding to a charge from a political opponent. The Democrats learned this lesson the hard way in 1988 when Michael Dukakis failed to respond to multiple charges made by the Bush-Quayle campaign. The result was that the Dems had their collective asses handed to them that year.
The next election cycle would be different as the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, organized an intricate network of surrogates and resources called The Rapid Response Team. Regional teams were put in place that would serve as points of contact as well as message disseminators. Research teams sat in front of computers and TV screens in Little Rock – ironically in a vacant newsroom of the defunct Arkansas Gazette – culling through and curating stories from the wire services, TV news, news dailies, and magazines for anything relevant to Clinton and the campaign. Any charge by the Bush-Quayle team would be met by immediate research, formulation of a response, and distribution to the surrogate network – all done, hopefully, within the same news cycle (this was a 24-hour news cycle in those days and not near real-time like today).
For the first time, the Democrats enjoyed a cohesive message delivery system where tens if not hundreds of surrogates were discussing the same talking points on local and national news channels in unison. The strategy was so successful that it has influenced every election campaign since.
So how important will social media be in the 2012 election cycle? According to a Pew Research poll from February, the numbers appear unimpressive. Only 2% of those surveyed obtain their political news from Twitter, 3% from Youtube, and 6% from Facebook. Although social media and Internet use among the population is increasing, the big winner is still cable TV. All other campaign news sources, with the exception of the Internet, have steadily declined in use over the past four election cycles. In fact, most Internet stories are sourced from other media. The Internet, as a political news source, has experienced only modest growth since 2008, mostly due to the Republican Party running the only contest to determine a nominee to face off in the general election.
The tenor and makeup of the political parties has changed dramatically in just the past 20 years. Generally, sea changes in a party’s constituent base occur at a glacial pace, more on an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary scale. There’s no denying that the country is sharply divided when it comes to political association.
A recent Pew Research poll on trends in American’s values that’s been conducted since 1987 reveals the widest-ever political divides in the U.S. For the first time, the values gap between party affiliation trumps race, gender, age, and income and has accelerated during the Bush and Obama years. The values gap shows an asymmetric polarization – the Republican Party has lurched hard to the right, while the Democrats have remained relatively unchanged over the same time period.
The absurdly Manichean nature of U.S. politics extends beyond simple rhetoric to the very core of beliefs for many, as is evident in Tea Party rallies and the Scream Media that invades our homes every evening during news hour. I believe there are a number of factors that have coincided to incite such extreme partisanship:
• Gerrymandering of congressional districts where the winning party is allowed to draw district boundaries in a fashion that ensures victory in the next election. This pushes the competitiveness from the fall elections to the primary contests in the spring. Why is this relevant? Because it requires the candidate to appeal to the most extreme values in order to win the party nomination and progress to the general election.
• Fractured, noisy media channels where only the most extreme voices get heard and coincidentally improve the chances of raising campaign funds. Think metaphorically of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s alliterative phrase “Defining Deviancy Down.”
• Well-heeled special interests groups and lobbyists who can now give unlimited contributions thanks to Citizens United.
• The shrinking and ideological homogeneity of both parties (again, the latter is more true of the Republican Party, according to polling data).
• More Americans relinquishing the labels of party identification and becoming Independents.
These elements together have been responsible for razor-thin election margins over the past two decades. Obama recently stated that for the first time in our nation’s history, an incumbent President will be outspent by the challenger. (Thank you, Citizens United.)
Indeed, the Romney campaign, Republican PACs, and “social welfare” groups (a non-profit designation that does not require funding disclosure) are outraising the Democrats at an astonishing rate. (Has anyone made note of the Orwellian naming conventions employed?) For the first time ever, some media outlets may run out of ad inventory as the campaigns and surrogate groups flush with cash flood the market place with ad buys. The Obama campaign will likely use more guerilla social media tactics to extend the reach of their relatively modest, but by no means paltry, war chest fund.
Costolo thinks that it’s the conversation that matters most, but he is only partially correct. The bigger-picture notion is that campaigns use traditional media sources, not social media, to frame the debate and create political narratives. Twitter will likely only play a limited supporting role as most of the conversations are too insider baseball to appeal to the general public. The only real, measurable success organizing through social media in the U.S. was against PIPA and SOPA earlier this year. Yes, it was wondrous to see geeks flex their muscles. But that campaign differs greatly from the Arab Spring, for example, primarily because of the intent and resources available. The students in Tahrir Square utilized Twitter because it was one of only a few resources available to them because of government-induced communications blackout.
Also, in the U.S., most news coverage around Twitter messaging from political campaigns is based on covering gaffes as opposed to the general content of the messaging. There’s even a non-profit group called the Sunlight Foundation that automatically captures tweets from politicians as they are tweeted and files them away in a database – even if the Pol deletes the message later. (Does Anthony Weiner come to mind for anyone?)
With all that noted, here’s how the respective campaigns’ Twitter presences stack up:
Twitter Best Practices for Profile Pages:
• Profile Photos: Check and check. I give Obama the edge here. His avatar is a “sun in the face” profile pic with him looking up and smiling. His avatar also includes the text “Obama Biden” and the campaign logo mark. Romney’s avatar has him looking down and circumspect with shadows over his eyes and doesn’t include branding.
• Profile Bios: Check and Check. Again, the edge goes to Obama. The candidates can use this space to write a creative bio about what they stand for… both candidates could do a better job here. Obama effectively uses his campaign’s hashtag, where Romney uses an image with text, rendering the hashtag unclickable.
• Background Image: Check and Check. Romney is the clear winner here. Obama has a simple solid blue background borrowed from his logo mark. Romney has a nice image from a campaign rally that ads more interest, IMO.
• Tweets/Content: Check and check. It’s clear that the Obama campaign has a dedicated team regularly posting fresh content including links, images, and videos. Obama outstrips Romney 4:1 with fresh, engaging content. Also, the Romney team tends to post off-message, less engaging content as well as lower-quality pics where you have to figure out if the candidate is actually in the photo. Romney’s team has a more ad hoc approach rather than a cohesive narrative (and they don’t post on weekends).
• Call to Action: Obama is the only candidate with a call to action on his profile page. Users are prompted to “Follow the Campaign,” and the page lists additional relevant Twitter profiles.
• Obama far exceeds Romney in the number of followers, tweets, and general engagement
• Obama follows back 3.891% of his followers
• Romney follows back .0387% of his followers
• Obama has been tweeting since March 5, 2007
• Romney has been tweeting since June 23, 2009
• Romney has just shy of 25% of the total Twitter content footprint of Obama
• Both campaigns utilize a period in front of the @ symbol in order for their tweets to receive maximum exposure (Read more here about why a period is used)
Politics, especially when negative, have an exhausting effect on voters and reduce turnout at the polls, so the prospect of a near real-time news cycle doesn’t strike me as a particularly strong selling point for this election cycle. The 2, 3, 6% in social media usage can make a huge difference when the electoral margins are razor-thin. Twitter and other social media channels may very well have the potential to make a difference here as slogans, narratives, videos, quotes, content, etc., are virally shared through the social media ecosystem by trusted friends and followers.
Digital Marketers know that this type of content has a much higher engagement and trust than, for example, a lone pay-per-click ad. The biggest winner(s) this election cycle will be the social media platforms. Social media ad spend by political campaigns is projected to grow by 15x over the 2008 season. If the numbers are to be believed, that translates to $142 million. While Obama has clear digital dominance, Romney has near infinite cash on hand directly and through surrogate organizations to carpet-bomb the airwaves with negative ads. Voters make up their minds on an emotional level, however, so it would be a mistake to think of social media as a true direct-response marketing tool… even TV ad dollars spent closer to election day show diminishing returns as voters’ minds are usually made up by this time.
Avinash Kaushik likes to label social media as a faith-based endeavor… when the election is over, will we be surprised that the outcome wasn’t better than expected? Will the candidates, electorate and pundits be able to quantify and substantiate the spending level that was dumped into social media? What metrics will they use? I suspect the diehard direct-response marketers among us will consider social media an inefficient and extravagant waste of money. The brand marketers will look at the sizable footprint created and call it a good thing.
– Anthony Young is Director of Online Acquisition at SnapLogic and a freelance SEO/SEM/SMM digital marketer. All opinions expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the position or opinions of SnapLogic or SnapLogic’s investors.