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Social media in an election campaign: It’s about way more than the likes and follows, all about the data and the conversation

April 29th, 2013 · 23 Comments

Doing anything about strategy during a campaign is excruciating. Hardly anyone wants to talk, unless they think they’ve got nothing to lose. Message box, yes. How we’re going to reach voters? Not so much.

So the NDP declined to comment in any way about their social media strategy, in case you’re wondering about the lopsidedness of this story. And the Liberals, while slightly more forthcoming, were still keeping cards close to their chests.

In spite of that, here’s my survey of what the parties are attempting and what the possibilities are that strategists see in using social media. As everyone drilled into my brain repeatedly, it’s not a billboard or a public-address system. It’s all about the conversation and the data that can be mined from those who participate.

The politics of likes in a place like B.C.: Social media on the campaign trail

When Christy Clark gave her 30-minute speech on television a couple of weeks ago, Devon Kruggel didn’t bother watching, even though he’s a supporter.

Instead, the 39-year-old software developer from Nanaimo followed the event on Facebook. He was on it anyway that Sunday night, reading items friends had posted. Since he had “liked” the page for the Liberal Leader many months before, he also got updates in his stream from the broadcast – graphics, quotes, pictures of Ms. Clark, profiles of some of the people seen in the clips. As he saw comments roll in under various posts, he sometimes countered them. When Maple Ridge resident Kimberley Plumridge wrote, “Just lost 30 minutes if my life for an infomercial” at 7:36, moments after the broadcast ended, Mr. Kruggel responded two minutes later with: “Better 30 mins of that than 4 years of the NDP. God almighty we’re in for 4 years of Dix and his lunatics.” He reproved another commenter for being tasteless.

The decision by the B.C. Liberals to run a “second screen” during Ms. Clark’s speech – something they claim is a first in Canadian politics – and Mr. Kruggel’s decision to follow the speech online are manifestations of the latest experiments in British Columbia with social media as a political tool.

None of the B.C. campaigns has come close to the kind of social-media sophistication that the Barack Obama campaign exhibited in the 2012 U.S. election, which is viewed as the rocket-science centre of political strategy these days.

That campaign deployed API (application programming interface) tools to reach into the data that its Facebook and Twitter fans provided, by following or liking, and used that to craft messages. But the messages weren’t intended for those who had followed or liked the party, but to others in their networks.

“Often you’re not advertising to the person who has liked you, but to their friends and family,” says Ian Capstick, the president of MediaStyle, an Ottawa company that advises political campaigns on social media. “That’s more valuable than saying ‘Vote for Christy Clark.’ ”

That’s something Ms. Clark’s team, and a few other campaigns, have taken to heart. They recognize that social-media use continues to climb in campaigns. Statistics from the U.S. election showed 17 per cent of people posted political content on their social-networking sites in 2012, compared to only 3 per cent in 2008.

And even though the B.C. politicians and strategists are not at the American level, they are moving beyond the simplistic “Look at me, I’m on Facebook” or “I have a Twitter account and a YouTube clip” efforts. They’re no longer treating social-media platforms as though they’re simple billboards parked in your riding.

“Social media is not geographically bounded,” says Brian Rice, the president of the federal Liberal Party in B.C. “So it’s not good for votes, but it is really good for funding or for finding activists aligned with the party.

The thoughtful campaigners are instead trying to exploit what is distinct about social media: they function on conversation. It allows campaigns access to personal networks. And they can use the data provided by followers to craft microtargeted messages.

The Liberals’ second-screen strategy is one of those, deliberately chosen to capitalize on what many in the party continue to see as a strength: Ms. Clark’s personal appeal when she communicates directly with the public, unimpeded by mass media. At the same time the broadcast was running, the party posted clips, graphics, photos and more to Ms. Clark’s Facebook profile.

Individual candidates who are social-media savvy, like the NDP candidate in Vancouver-False Creek, Matt Toner, are also experimenting with ways to use Facebook, beyond just posting notices. Mr. Toner has developed apps for his Facebook page, Can We Do It, that allow people to click on a link to sign up as volunteers – the kind of “click activism” that the social-media set is more used to than phoning in to volunteer. His team has designed newsletters that go only to specific parts of Mr. Toner’s Facebook network that focus on select topics: salmon farming, TV’s Knowledge Network.

And he has offered a bundle of video games over the Internet for any price people want to offer; so far he’s raised $32,000, which will go, in part, to retraining people in the digital industry and partly to his campaign. The bundle also generated a lot of chatter on social-media channels, with mentions of his political campaign attached. That’s the ideal in the social-media world – a campaign that somehow doesn’t feel too much like a campaign yet has a message embedded.

“People are now talking about my campaign who wouldn’t have,” said Mr. Toner, a 44-year-old digital-media entrepreneur.

Like many in this election campaign, Mr. Toner said Facebook is the preferred social-media channel. Vancouver, especially, is seen as a Facebook town, with Twitter – the preferred channel for the chattering media and politico classes – running a distant second. Facebook also has the advantage that it’s good for visuals and for apps, unlike Twitter.

That’s why the Liberals have put so much effort there.

For one, Ms. Clark is strong on Facebook: she has 17,000 likes on her page, compared to about 1,200 likes for NDP Leader Adrian Dix, 500 for Green Party Leader Jane Sterk, and 400 for Conservative Party Leader John Cummins.

The Liberals also believe that Ms. Clark can connect better there with women, who are more inclined to get their news from Facebook than traditional channels. So the Liberal Leader’s page is filled with bits of news laced with dozens of pictures of her smiling at various events or walking with her son.

It also has some straight party information and the odd quiz on “worst movie of the eighties” or the best prize anyone has won in a Tim Hortons roll-up-the-rim contest – all part of mixing the personal and the political, which strategists say is the key to using social media well.

As Ms. Clark’s team rolls out a stream of posts, followers like Devon Kruggel do one other crucial thing – pass on bits and pieces by sharing or liking.

“I do that with some. Not all,” Mr. Kruggel says. “It is free advertising for them, but that’s fine. I seem myself as being part of the system.”

That kind of sophisticated yet personal use of Facebook is what analysts say is needed.

“You just can’t use it as a press-release platform. A lot of candidates, that’s what they do,” says Brian Rice of the federal Liberals. One NDP candidate sent a message out saying he was shutting down his personal profile page during the campaign. That’s a move Mr. Rice sees as a total misunderstanding of what social media does – but it’s becoming more common.

“I’m seeing a lot of fear from the central campaigns about social media, as something they need to control.”

Almost every election now seems to go through a standard Act I, where one candidate or another is bounced from the campaign because of a social-media indiscretion. Already there have been two. Kelowna-Mission candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk was dropped by the NDP on Day 1 of the campaign after less than politically correct comments about francophones and First Nations groups came to light. And this week, the Conservatives’ Vancouver-False Creek candidate Ian Tootill was fired after tweets from two years ago were publicized; in them, he said “men like sluts,” all drugs should be legalized, and suggested it was the people following Hitler’s orders who were more to blame than Hitler.

That’s why even those who are more confident and aggressive on social media are still cautious.

“I say practise safe tweeting,” says Transportation Minister Mary Polak. She’s been an exuberant tweeter on first @marypolak and, since the campaign started, @maryforbc where she has about 2,400 followers.

Like so many, Ms. Polak said tweeting can’t be about sending out news releases. That’s boring. So she works with a team to develop a month’s worth of planned announcements through HootSuite, which she vets, and then she does spontaneous live-tweeting or responding to regular-citizen questions herself. But she always gets someone to vet any answer she thinks is straying into emotional territory, especially because she thinks it’s important to talk to people who disagree, not just fans.

“On social media, people get you riled up. So if I’m composing a tweet that’s more than straight factual, I show it to somebody else before I send.”

Ms. Polak echoes, too, what many other social-media strategists have said. Social media can’t replace the other essential parts of campaigning and politics. But she’s convinced it’s a crucial addition. “Somebody came up to me the other day and said, ‘I know you from Twitter.’ That’s what’s proven it to me.”

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