How to Effectively Leverage Social Media in a Political Campaign

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Former President Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to leverage the power of social media to work his way to the White House in 2008. Never before had a political candidate so candidly interacted with the American people and reached out to them where they spent most of their time: online. Along with winning over potential voters at rallies and other organized events, his team reached out to people in their homes, at work and on the go over social media.

The Obama campaign not only used Facebook and YouTube to reach large demographics of voters, but also MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee and many others, to reach smaller voter sects. Obama later perfected his social media strategy during his reelection campaign in 2012.

A year later, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also made history when he leveraged Vine, an up-and-coming, hip new platform at the time, to showcase his vote against a bill that would have limited access to abortions. Posting his “nay” vote, Swalwell captioned his post, writing, “When House @GOP try to roll back health protections for women, this is how I vote. #WarOnWomen.”

The 2016 presidential election further changed the landscape for politicians on social media, especially in regard to Donald Trump’s unconventional usage of Twitter. Instead of following a carefully scripted narrative online, Trump leaned into the chaos of early morning Tweet battles, grammatical errors and rants. While to his opponents, this seemed to be a grave course of action, to his followers, this strategy made him far more approachable, thus helping him win the election.

Social media icons

Candidates running high-impact campaigns aren’t the only political contenders who need to leverage social media. Local and state politicians should also use social media channels to connect with their voters, expand their voter demographics and much more. Here are seven tips for knowing how to effectively use social media for any local, state or national political campaign:

1. Treat social media campaigns like brand platforms

Not unlike a product or organization, in today’s online society, public officials are not any different than huge brand names or companies in regard to how people pay attention to their actions and image they exude. What this means, is that in the days before social media, candidates were primarily defined by their political leanings and public actions. Now, with the rise of this online fervor, every little detail of candidates lives is now instantly available.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, voters in Washington state could log on to Snapchat or Instagram and see what Senator Bernie Sanders was doing that day. Other voters from Florida could do the same about Senator Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton. The scope is even wider though. Much like an international organization, interested “consumers” from all over the world can sign into social media accounts and monitor the “brand name” of any politician.

Just like politicians want to project a certain brand at their rallies, at debates, and on television, they must do the same on their social media channels. Trump thoroughly embraced his outspoken and bullish nature both in person and in his endless number of Twitter rants. He used nicknames and catchphrases that resonated with his particular brand to draw in more voters.

Like with any brand, every bit of advertising or marketing must align itself with the overall branding framework. Therefore, every tweet, blog post, image and Facebook post must adhere to the perfectly crafted script and controlled branding message candidates are trying to showcase. While Trump’s tweeting may seem like his team is letting him have full reign and tweet unchecked, this is all part of their social media branding strategy to show his supporters that his passion for change will not be tamed.

2. Speak the platform’s language

A post on Twitter will not have the same effect across all social media platforms. This is because the platforms offer different purposes and cater to diverse demographics and users. It’s essential for political teams to understand the various ins and outs of each platform to know how to craft the perfect message for their target audience. Most obviously, candidates wouldn’t use the same post on LinkedIn as they would on Twitter, just as they would not do the same on Facebook and Snapchat.

Today, Facebook is primarily used by middle to older generations, while Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are used by younger voters. Politicians must carefully learn each platform’s language in order to appeal to its users.

3. Consistency is essential

One of the most important thoughts to keep in mind while using social media during a political campaign is to be consistent. Being consistent does not mean that candidates should do the same thing day after day and never adapt their strategy. After all, candidates should continually be tapping into new trends, strategies and platform features to resonate with a wider demographic of voters.

What consistency actually means is that candidates not only remain true to their “branding,” but also take time to invest in the followers they garner over time. Followers come to expect certain kinds of tweets or posts from the candidates. If Clinton and Trump suddenly started posting on social media like each other, their followers would be confused and probably more than a little upset.

Building relationships take time and this is no different over social media. While it might be easier to reach potential voters than traditional meet-and-greet methods, politicians must realize that social media marketing is not a short-term game plan. They must be in it for the long haul, willing to put in the hours to engage with the followers they gain and continually reach out to those who are still holding out.

4. Images speak louder than words

What speaks more volume: A short tweet about a politician serving food at a soup kitchen, or an image that captures the moment? Obviously, the image speaks far more about political candidates’ passion for the issues. Since pictures are worth a thousand words candidates should be proactive about candid photo opportunities, especially on Snapchat and similar platforms.

Experts indicate that even on Twitter, which is known for its strict character limit, tweets that contain images have higher click-through rates, retweets and conversions. Instead of only focusing on crafting a story with words, campaign managers, candidates and communication directors must also leverage images to achieve higher levels of voter engagement.

Man holding up twitter symbol

5. Make it easy for voters to donate

Prior to the rise of social media, supporters had to seek out their candidate’s donate button on their website or mail in their monetary support. Now, candidates can include donate buttons on their social media channels, allowing their supporters to contribute in real-time and on the same platform.

Big data allows campaigns to uniquely target potential voters or donors, which boosts candidates’ chances of gaining votes and support. If voters are always reading articles about women’s rights issues over social media, political campaigns can target these voters with specific ads focused on how their candidate has championed women’s issues. This may make voters more inclined to donate right on the candidate’s social media page.

6. Get personal

More than ever before, candidates are getting personal over social media. Instead of only relying on heavily choreographed and scripted press conferences and photo ops to convey their message, some are also turning right to social media platforms. For example, candidates might upload compelling, short Snapchat stories to talk about their views on immigration reform or the need for funding for inner cities schools.

Voters are tired of hearing the same-old jargon and the same-old issues. They want to vote for candidates who are willing to get real about the issues they support. This is where Trump triumphed in the social media environment. He simplified complicated political issues (whether intentionally or not) on Twitter, which resonated with a large swath of people who were not normally engaged with the political sphere. Getting personal allowed him to appeal to an entire group of unreached voters.

7. Continually evolve

The key to any successful political social media strategy is to be willing to pivot at a moment’s notice. What works one month may look clumsy or outdated in the next. Just as political campaigns themselves are constantly evolving, so should candidates’ social media approaches. They must find what works for them and keeps their name popping up time and time again in the news. After all, name recognition is the real secret to successful political campaigns.

A master’s degree in political management can equip you with the skills and strategies you need to be ready to thrive in the social media political landscape. For more details about how an online program can support you while you are already working in the political sector or before you decide to make a career switch, visit George Washington University online.

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