The Role of Social Network Organizing in Political Campaigns
by Charlie McHenry
by Charlie McHenry
Background: The advent and proliferation of hand-held mobile "smart phones" with access to the Internet and email has changed the way America communicates. Paired with the explosion of participation in online, digital social networks like MySpace and FaceBook, a powerful set of new organizing and communication tools is emerging. Savvy political campaigns are already leveraging the technology, indeed they led the way in many cases. One has only to look as far as Moveon.org, ActBlue or Democracy for America for case studies in social network excellence.
Importantly, it is predicted that by the year 2013 more Internet users will access the Net from their hand-held devices than from desktop PCs. Campaigns can now literally reach their base of supporters anytime, in any location.
Proposition: Successful political campaigns of the future will depend on the reach and power of the social networks on the Internet, leveraging these sites, services and hardware technologies that support them in a variety of creative, mission-critical ways.
Challenge/Objective: To strategically design and build an Internet and social network presence to provide a comprehensive and robust platform for organizing, fund-raising, canvassing, event management and GOTV. To use the platform in the most aggressive, technologically advanced and creative manner to win the campaign.
Caveat: Wise professionals and serious candidates appreciate the dangers of over-communicating. The tools discussed must be deployed with care and study, in a strategic manner. Reactions and feedback need to be monitored to ensure the desired results. Campaigns can talk too much, and that is sometimes a fatal flaw.
Discussion: The Internet and bevy of new, social networking and metrics sites enable the flow of information in two directions: outbound and inbound.
Outbound strategies and communications are used to identify, cultivate and organize campaign supporters - the base. These are conversations the campaign initiates and maintains with constituents. Conversations that are then continued, amplified and given voice throughout targeted social networks.
In most cases, outbound conversations are initiated from the campaign Web site; the candidate's blog; the campaign YouTube channel, FaceBook fan page or Twitter account. Begin with attention to "share" functions and opportunities. For example, the candidate's principal Web site should offer readers the opportunity to Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, or bookmark and share the site with Technorati. These are online, shared bookmark sites that allow other users to "find" and participate in your conversations.
Next, it is very important for campaigns to have mobile versions of their principal Web sites. Mobile sites take the content, links and branding from the principal site and adjust the data to conform to the smaller screens, touch-screen navigation, and positional aspect hand-held devices feature. Standard sites often do not translate well to iPhones and other hand-held devices, so this piece is important to outbound communications.
Web sites, by themselves, are simply not enough anymore. Effective Internet communications requires multiple sites broadcasting information, all linked together, to maximize visibility, add "weight" and increase traffic.
A candidate or campaign blog is an important additional piece. Blogs are journals, they engage readers in different and compelling ways. They offer moderated comment fields to increase user engagement and provide a platform for discussion. And easy syndication through RSS feeds. Blogs contribute to Technorati ratings and referrals. A minimum of two-to-three posts per week is necessary to keep blogs fresh and appealing to readers.
Perhaps most important, in the new social network space, is a presence on FaceBook. Over one-half of your targets, in most cases, will have a FaceBook profile and spend time on the site. Building and leveraging a FaceBook "fan page," then extending your messaging from that site through the network is an important component of social network organizing.
Twitter is another way for Candidates to communicate with their base, especially from the road and at events. In the new world, news is first Tweeted to followers, then broadcast to the traditional media. Tweets can highlight appearances, and be used to fill the room. They can be used to build anticipation, recruit volunteers, and provide short campaign updates. Campaign ambassadors and evangelists can be instructed to re-tweet important news and include the campaign account on Follow Friday's. We're still plumbing the depths of this extremely important new tool, but one thing is certain. Twitter is a necessary ingredient in successful campaigns.
Email action alerts coupled with SMS messaging are powerful organizing and communications tools. Each has its role in a robust digital strategy. It has become clear through practice that email alerts, tied to opposition statements and strategies, can be leveraged on multiple occasions during a campaign to encourage/motivate donations. For example, if one candidate makes a statement supporting vouchers for public education in the course of a campaign stop; an email alert can go out the next day to teacher's union members and votes for whom public education is a high priority highlighting the candidate's position and soliciting donations to "...prevent the wholesale dismantling of the public education system." Quick response, great targeting and compelling copy make this tactic successful in most cases.
Inbound information is leveraged to monitor external conversations about the candidate/issue and campaign. In this manner, campaign management can track trends, intercept rumors and intervene early on, and respond to criticisms when indicated and appropriate. The campaign can also monitor conversations to identify and recruit natural ambassadors and evangelists, then deploying these assets in key roles.
How does one build an online information monitoring system? The good news is that there are plenty of building blocks to employ. Google Alerts is a great place to start. Google allows users to configure automated email alerts around selected key words. It's not hard to see the potential. Multiple permutations of key campaign words can be created with a Google Alert tied to each one, providing a wealth of information to sift through on a regular basis.
Twitter is another great tool for monitoring "outside" conversations. Twitter has a great "search" function and a system of hash mark tags (preceded by #) that permit one to follow topics. Once topic to follow have been identified, individual users who post frequently on targeted topics can be "followed" to ensure a steady stream of real-world feedback.
Technorati's site ranks blogs and documents trends in blog posts. It also has a search function and one can mine the data contained in the site for candidate or issue mentions in the blogosphere. In these ways, campaigns can keep track of the chatter...what the outside world is saying about the issues, candidate and race.
Implementation: First things first. It is imperative to be proactive and assertive about collecting email addresses and cell-phone numbers (for SMS messaging) of campaign supporters and targets.
Second, it is critical for campaigns to inventory their digital and personnel assets up-front to determine what is available for online use and who is ready to use it for the campaign. That means the campaign communications manager/committee collects all images and graphics to be used in the campaign, all audio and video assets, issue-based information, party-based information, and the like and archives it after approval.
Next, build the principal campaign Web Site. Avoid "Flash" and any elements that slow-down the page load. Make the site clean, simple and easy to navigate. Ensure there is a share and a donate button on the landing page - with links to the campaign blog, YouTube Channel and contact information. It goes without saying that consistent graphic standards across all campaign literature and online resources is essential to avoid dissonance, inconsistency and confusion.
Build the campaign blog. Link to all other on-line resources. Establish an RSS feed from the blog and make sure to use Technorati Tags, in addition to labels, on all posts. Each post should feature a share function at the conclusion of the article with all bookmark and social network sites accessible with a click. So readers can bookmark the post on the Net and instantly share blog articles on their own FaceBook page or with their own Twitter account.
Open a campaign Twitter account and designate an individual or team/committee to monitor inbound data and manage outbound communications. Make a strategy and a schedule for outbound Tweets. Encourage supporters to Re-Tweet campaign Tweets.
Create a campaign YouTube channel for relevant video clips. Clips on YouTube can be embedded easily in blogs of all sorts (encouraging supporters to add clips to their own sites) and once uploaded, get a URL of their own for linking. A YouTube presence with links back to the campaign Web site and blog add weight to both. Google search bots use "weighting" to determine the page rank.
Set up your campaign Internet monitoring model, leveraging the sites and services referenced previously. There are additional metrics and analysis sites that will provide an even deeper view into the characteristics of your site visitors, blog readers and Twitter followers. To the extent possible, leverage these (free) resources as well.
Leverage user data: to identify and recruit campaign ambassadors, evangelists, donors & volunteers; for fund-raising campaigns and to identify supporters willing to hold events like candidate coffees; and to "discover" and confirm lawn- and field-sign locations.
Create blended events using the Internet to identify geographically proximate supporters, organize events, distribute agendas & literature, and collect donations.
Use Action Alerts judiciously to mobilize supporters for a variety of purposes from canvassing to LTEs and GOTV.