The Importance of Social Media in Politics

OrgSpring recently worked with the Richard Bloom for CA State Assembly (50th District) campaign to help spread the word on social media just two weeks before the primary election. State voting rules stipulate that the top two primary winners will go on to the general election in November, regardless of political affiliation. Redistricting allowed for several popular local candidates to run against each other, making it one of the more highly contested races in CA this year.

The primary was held on Tuesday, June 5th, and the results are in. The top two candidates were separated by only 0.3% of the vote, or nearly 100 votes among nearly 50,000 total votes cast. The entire field of candidates were separated by less than 2% of the vote, making it one of the closest primary elections in recent years.

We all know what social media has meant to political powerhouse campaigns, like that of President Obama, and a few of the popular candidates running against him. Some of those candidates have millions of fans and receive just as many mentions across the big three social media streams. There’s no doubt social media played a big part in the 2008 Presidential election, and even less of a doubt it will play a big part in this year’s election too!

But at the local level, most experts will tell you that social media has not yet penetrated the political zeitgeist, and that most voters don’t pay attention to the candidate’s online messages. At OrgSpring, we believe that sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth, and the work we did for the Bloom campaign proves it – that and a recent study from Harvard Institute of Politics which shows that social media is gaining as a trusted source of political data, especially among those who consider the opinions of their friends in political matters – and don’t we all to some degree?

Social Media Political Strategy – The Baseline Data

When we started working with Bloom, his Facebook page had only a few hundred fans and his Twitter following was only in the double digits. When he did use those sites it was for posting press releases and event information, not to connect with constituents on a personal level.

The candidate was also tracking lower than expected in the polls, usually third out of four candidates – a position which would not see him proceed to the general election. We knew it was going to be a tight race and we knew a few votes could mean the difference between success and going home hat in hand.

In the two-week lead up to the primary we  established an agressive social media campaign which consisted of online ad buys (mostly Google and Facebook) pointing to social media streams and the Bloom website, which asked viewers to pledge their support, and disseminated information about where Richard stood on the issues and where his constituents could vote. We also leaned heavily on social media streams of popular political figures and local influencers to help spread our message.

Social Media in Politics – Key Performance Indicators

Typical KPI’s for awareness building include headline articles (online and offline, rise in fans and followers on social media networks,  and increased mentions in social media profiles. Of course sentiment is always an issue in a political race, but most sentiment algorithms are far from perfect. Finally, we were interested in raw votes.

Unfortunately, voting machines are not hooked up to our social networks. We can watch precinct results, but that data is after the fact, and we were interested in using social media as a pre-vote barometer. The only way to find out if someone is planning to vote your way is to ask them and get that information directly. We planned to do this via our social media streams and to get people to pledge their votes by signing a form on the candidate’s website.

Social Media in Politics – The Strategy

We decided to increase frequency of social messaging from approximately one message every few days to at least four or five messages per day, and change the content of those updates from event updates to actual conversations. We wanted to engage constituents, and to converse on topics important to them – not just on topics we thought were important to the campaign.

That’s the first area we targeted – to ask constituents what was important to them, and by doing so, develop a relationship with them that would yield a vote, or a pledge of support. Of course, the candidate had a good idea of these things already from his long career in the area as an attorney and Mayor of Santa Monica, but the interaction with constituents online proved invaluable. We got responses via email and social media channels with dozens of comments, and questions about everything from philosophy and strategy to his stance on the important issues. Twitter and Facebook were essential for this task, as was combing the web for local sites that were engaged in political debate with the candidate’s constituents.

Staff members and volunteers posted comments and started conversations all over the web where groups of major constituents congregated. We used Facebook groups to target likely voters, and several popular political hashtags on Twitter to find the conversants.

Social Media in Politics – The Results

Volunteers tweeted and retweeted messages, campaign rallies, and voting information which reached more than 200,000 eyeballs, covering what we determined to be more than a majority of the population which would eventually vote in this primary.

We monitored the rise in mentions over two weeks, and the candidates Facebook profile went from just a few people a day talking about it to nearly 400 per day at its peak., and more than 1,400 fans.

In fewer than two weeks, we were able to generate more than 2,000 visitors to the Richard Bloom for CA State Assembly website, many of which signed up for Bloom’s newsletter and for campaign updates as we drew closer to the primary election (By the way, that site was beautifully designed by Matthew Reynolds).

We used the newsletter to send out an email blast nearly every other day, informing constituents of daily events, polling results, and more importantly, where Richard stood on issues important to the local business people and residents. The emails sent people to the newly re-designed website and to the social media profiles.

The results were phenomenal. Supporters were constantly tweeting, retweeting, and sharing campaign messages in the days before the primary election. We received several hundred mentions across all web platforms, which may not seem like much these days, but in a tight election like this one (decided by 100 votes) the activity was very meaningful, and was a part of why Bloom became one of the top vote getters.

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Craig Grella

Founder and Executive Director at OrgSpring
Craig is the founder and executive director or OrgSpring, a nonprofit dedicated to helping other nonprofits achieve their missions online. Through tips and tutorials, Craig's goal is show nonprofits how to use technology to become more efficient, grow their list of supporters, and increase online donations.