Why politics may drive the social web

While President Obama’s use of the social web to connect with voters and raise funds has been well-documented, it may be Scott Brown’s impossible 2010 senatorial win that cements the social web’s role in politics — and perhaps sets it at the forefront of social web innovation.

To set the stage, this was one of the most important state elections in American history.  Healthcare reform was the centerpiece of the Democratic platform and its success hinged on the simple fact that the party held 60 seats in the U.S. Senate, the majority needed to overcome procedural tactics from the opposition that could prevent a vote. That tenuous balance of power shifted when Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts died of cancer last August. The future of healthcare reform and the political makeup of the Senate apparently would be determined by a special election in that state.

This Massachusetts senatorial seat has had a Democratic incumbent for 57 consecutive years and Martha Coakley, the state’s well-funded attorney general, was considered a prohibitive favorite to continue that trend.  Yet the victory went to Brown, a little-known Republican state senator, who surged in the final two weeks of the campaign and overcame a 30-point deficit in just over two months.

What could have caused this amazing turn of events?  While his election was certainly aided by growing concern over Democratic policies, tireless campaigning, and some timely Republican funding, his use of the social web, as documented by a new study, may be the tactic that will imprint state and local elections forever.

According to  research conducted by the Emerging Media Research Council, Brown’s effective use of social networking tools including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. could have been a factor in his surge.  Here were his numbers as of election day:

Facebook Fans:  Brown (70,800), Coakley (13,529) He received 10 times more Facebook interactions than his opponent.

Twitter Followers:  Brown (9,679), Coakley (3,385)  Brown’s Twitter feed dominated his web page.  Both candidates tweeted about the same amount, but Brown offered twice as much original content, providing a more “engaged response.”

Ning:  The “Brown Brigade” had 6,000 members. The platform created a campaign community to announce events, organize outreach, and compile blogs about his campaign.

Blogging:  Did not appear to be a factor. Brown did not have one. Coakley’s discussed campaign events and received few comments.

YouTube Video Views:  Brown (578,271), Coakley (51,173)

While visits to both candidate webpages were about equal, the study concludes that Brown’s use of social media helped drive his election in several ways, including boosting name recognition both in Massachusetts, and out (which helped fundraising). They note that just 51% of Massachusetts voters had heard of Brown in a Nov. 12 poll, and by Jan. 14 his name recognition was at 95%.

An irony of this development is that Democrats have received the bulk of the credit for progressing campaign-oriented social media networks, but were out-done by the Republicans.  In fact, a report released this year found that Republican lawmakers were using Twitter more than five times as much as Democrats.  Leading tweeters are Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Senatoe Jim DeMint, who was determined by one algorithm to have more Twitter “clout and influence”  than any other senator.

Clearly, the use of social media will now be inexorably linked to political campaigning.  But the more interesting prospect may be what is yet to come. With the intense research, resources and scrutiny given to the use of the social web as a tool of stakeholder engagement, could political parties emerge as principle technology innovators?

Politics as social web innovator and driver brings up some other interesting questions:

  • How do social web lessons from the business world translate into the world of politics?
  • How will social media policies apply to political campaigns … to prevent potential embarassment from over-zealous tweeters, for example?
  • How will these lessons translate in other countries, especially where social media adoption is just beginning?
  • Why weren’t blogs more important as a mechanism for political response and establishing a voice of authority? Are they afraid of putting their stands in writing?
  • What business opportunities will emerge from this insatiable need for political social media consulting?
Illustration: New York Times

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  • Jim LeBlanc

    A unique take on things, Mark. And you could be right on this. The stakes are so high for politicians and the opportunities so great, why wouldn’t this segment drive a tremendous amount of innovation? I guess we’ll find out in November!

  • Esau

    First, great post! Second. GIGANTIC questions at the end. It would be interesting to tap into resources who are driving this from a political standpoint. Any blogs on this subject you know of?

  • This is a very interesting and important question. There’s a good article on civil servants being ready for social media http://www.futuregov.net/articles/2010/apr/05/are-civil-servants-made-social-media/

    Personally, I’m curious to see how the Brits use it with the election coming up in the UK.

  • Mark

    @Jon — Great link! How could civil servants NOT get it at this point? Maybe it is a matter of geography as i suggest in one of my questions. Will be interested to touch base with you after the UK elections.

    @Esau – Superb question. I’m interested in that myself. Jon gave us a good start with the link above. There are so many political blogs and we are kind of bridging the two interest groups here.

    @Jim — Thanks for stopping by today!

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  • Terrific post. I think you have to stop for a moment and take in this sentence however: ‘South Carolina Senatoe Jim DeMint, who was determined by one algorithm to have more Twitter “clout and influence” than any other senator.’ First it made me laugh. Then it made me think.

  • Maybe it is because I’m a political junkie and spend most of my time discussing politics on the social web, but I think the business world would do well to try to translate lessons from politics into their strategy. Primarily, capturing the passion people have to tell their story within a larger context and to be able to connect (or at least have the feeling of connecting) with people who can possibly influence their lives. Also of the tribal feelings engendered by being a part of something larger than themselves with like-minded individuals. There are people who get passionate about a brand, but by far politics wins the passion prize, particularly with the stakes so high. Successful campaigns tap into that passion, and Scott Brown’s campaign did that. The social web allowed supporters to receive information in real time and allowed those from across the country to become a part of the efforts, to mobilize resources, and get targeted messages out (not to mention to raise funds). Brown’s campaign didn’t limit itself to just MA, but framed it in a larger context, allowing those from outside the state to feel welcomed to participate. I used to do a lot of political blogging, but I have practically abandoned it due to the more immediate nature of twitter and facebook. Blogging by a politician would be good to convey a more detailed overview of some complex policy matter, but in terms of engagement with voters, it is like putting an op-ed in the newspaper versus going door to door talking directly to voters. Politicians have to go where their constituents are to engage them. If they are on twitter or facebook, that is where they must go and be as comfortable engaging directly as they would in person. Politicians are still trying to figure out the right mix in terms of direct engagement versus broadcasting and not all of them do this well. It isn’t so much the politicians themselves that are doing great work in terms of social web engagement, but the common-cause issues such as the Teaparty Movement and those who were successful in getting advertisers to drop The Glenn Beck Program on FOX. There is no one issue that brings people to the political table, and for that reason, the engagement within that sphere isn’t limited to any one facet of a person’s life. It makes the connections between and within the community richer. Businesses would do well to not limit themselves or their brand to one specific area, but again, allow their “raving fans” to intertwine the brand within their lives, and allowing real people working on behalf of the brand to engage directly as people, and not as a generic brand account. Even if the person isn’t identified by name, it is easy to tell when the company takes a larger interest in its customers beyond “buy what i am selling.” One brand that has done that specifically for me has been the small NYC-based handbag desigeners of Hayden-Harnett. Their bags are not cheap, but over the past three years I’ve bought about 6 of them, primarily because of the connection I feel to the brand through their social web interactions both on Facebook and Twitter. Sure, they promote new products and sales and offer special tools to help choose the best bag or outfit, but they extend that into caring for their customers in a personal way. Their twitter feed also includes extension into causes and other sites that they feel would be of interest to their customers, and they also directly engage and respond to tweets and posts on FB. When we had a home invasion attack months ago, they reached out to me several times to see if I was OK and to extend their concern. Wow. Can I just say that I ordered two more bags after that? I will be loyal to their brand for as long as they produce products, and in the same way, I am fiercely loyal to politicians and causes that directly engage me, both online and off.

  • Mark

    @Jenci Thanks for the new blog post. Seriously!

    @Marc — Making you think. Yeah, that’s what I’m after : )

  • OK, I’m going to ask a couple of really dumb questions. Is it really the politicians people will be “engaging” with or their political machine? Will people ultimately get turned off politicians who claim to be communicating via social media when they find out THEY really aren’t?
    You’ve discussed authenticity in this community before. Personally, I believe that the typical lack of authenticity in our political system will become even more evident when social media is used. Maybe that will be where the “good” comes from.
    Sorry to be such a cynic but I’d really like to see politicians stay away from this media. But, then again, maybe when they post a commitment and document it for all to see, they’ll be held accountable for what they say for once…….

  • Mark

    @Steve That is a really great point. Wonder if there is any research on how many politicians actually do their own stuff? Maybe Jenci has a feel for that?

  • @Steve There are plenty of politicians who do embrace twitter, and certainly those who have staff members do it on their behalf. Obviously there are many more who don’t do anything within social media out of fear or a perception that it is not valuable or worth their time. I will have to see if a site like Open Congress provides any insight into whether the account is done by the politico or by a staff member. I find that the more local you get, the more likely you are to have the individual do their own posts. It is a turn-off to me for an elected official to adopt the technology, but not really embrace it or use it themselves. If they aren’t going to use it themselves, then make sure people know it isn’t being managed by you. I don’t think anyone believes that Obama posts his own tweets (if they are still posting to that account.) With Facebook fan pages, there is less an expectation that you are engaging with the actual candidate/person in my opinion. People like to make fun of the “what-I-had-for-lunch” posts, but I find those to be an invaluable way to connect with other people in a non-threatening way (assuming they post some meat with their meat, and assuming they use those sorts of posts to connect with people.) Some of the greatest connections I have made with people have started through the “what I’m eating” post. We all have to eat – whether you are a famous politician or a stay-at-home mom. In the same manner, there are plenty of brands / businesses who are being told to jump into social media because “everyone is doing it.” It seems scary and something that should be handed off to an outside firm to manage. So they do and some PR intern is handed the job of posing as the brand/business online. This is just the same as the politician who abdicates their use of social media to a staffer. For me, whether it is a brand or a politician, I am not interested in carrying on a conversation with a ventriloquist’s dummy. The insanity is that they honestly think that we won’t know the difference; that we won’t see the arm of staffers stuck up under their collective shirts. I mentioned this issue during my public comments to the FCC when they were conducting public hearings on the broadband plan and digital inclusion. I voiced the concern that while I think it is important to ensure that users/citizens understand how to use technology to connect with government, it is equally (if not more) important that our public servants understand how to connect with the public in a real and authentic way.

  • @jenci – thanks!

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