social media political campaigns

It would all unfold in a matter of hours – what started as a well-intentioned idea quickly turned into chaos, followed by the swift intervention of online activists. An event that turned out to be both a demonstration of social media’s powers and reach, and a cautionary tale about the platform’s abuses. Maybe you remember the red t-shirts, the viral video, how your Facebook newsfeed seemed to be exploding. It was Kony 2012.


The short film Kony 2012 was produced by charity organization Invisible Children in order to help stop, and arrest, African war criminal Joseph Kony. Though the awareness goals of the movement ultimately went wide of their mark, the takeaway here is very clear: social media has a vital part to play in contemporary political life and activism.

Nowhere was this message more meaningful than in the U.S. presidential election that followed the same year, when candidates for office took to social media, often for the first times in their careers. Most notably, George Romney and Barack Obama used these public platforms to gather supporters, clarify and communicate key messages and talking points, and broaden their reach across the electorate.

As Daniel Kreiss notes in his study of Twitter use in the 2012 campaign, “Seizing the Moment,” by the end of Mitt Romney’s campaign, 22 people had to approve each tweet, Facebook post, blog post, or photo posted by Romney's digital team. In contrast, Barack Obama’s team was able to be more agile and so more effective. (Click the Romney tweet to read the study.)

As Daniel Kreiss notes in his study of Twitter use in the 2012 campaign, “Seizing the Moment,” by the end of Mitt Romney’s campaign, 22 people had to approve each tweet, Facebook post, blog post, or photo posted by Romney’s digital team. In contrast, Barack Obama’s team was able to be more agile and so more effective. (Click the Romney tweet to read the study.)

And voters responded. According to the Pew Research Center:

In the 2012 election, 30% of registered voters were encouraged to vote for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama by family and friends via posts on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. 20% have encouraged others to vote by posting on such sites. And once voters made a decision, 22% let others know how they voted through social networking sites.

This tweet became the most retweeted tweet ever (at the time – it’s still on the top three list):

Barack Obama Tweet

This kind of social media engagement has only increased in the last few years. In fact, 61 percent of millennials today get the majority of their political news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center . As we find ourselves in the thick of yet another presidential primary, it’s helpful to take stock of what’s come to pass and recognize the lessons/best practices we can leverage ourselves as brands in our own online outreach.

1. Target Your Offers to Key Personas

Before 2012, few political campaigns really leveraged social media’s powerful potential. Social media platforms were valued largely for the air cover they could provide, a bullhorn of sorts. Social media was viewed as no different in its scope or reach than the other platforms such as TV advertising, direct mail, or inserts.

But in recent years, the pendulum of political outreach has come to swing the other way. Programmatic advertising – which automates the media buying process by targeting specific audiences or demographics – has become the standard. Political campaigns have benefited enormously by using the census and polling data at their disposal to segment and personalize communications by party affiliations and locations – even individual voters themselves.

Donald Trump Tweet

Ted Cruz Tweet

Voters are reminded regularly about the hours and locations of their nearby polling places; active members of regional political organizations are urged to support like-minded candidates.

Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton even went so far as to appeal to Latino voters directly by likening herself to their abuela (grandmother). This ultimately backfired on Clinton, with calls of “Hispandering,” but the tactic signified programmatic advertising’s popularity.

Hillary Clinton

In order for B2B brands to replicate this approach in their own communications, organizations must put a lot of thought and research into their ideal buyers. These things might include their titles, their constraints or pain points, or the industries they serve. Once you have a good idea of who you are talking to, your communication must be tailored to the individual buyer. This might mean a video that highlights a CMO’s main considerations in spending their technology budget; a white paper that walks a marketing coordinator through what to look for when investing in a new solution; an educational webinar that a specialist could attend to improve their skills. Opt for persona-based outreach, and your presence on social will be all the richer.

2. Tie Your Multi-Channel Programs Together

It’s clear that while social media has earned a prominent role in recent political outreach, email remains the bedrock of the modern political campaign. Email is the engine that drives everything else forward – pleas to donate, gratitude for past contributions, alerts to ongoing debates and upcoming rallies. As such, it’s become more and more important for candidates to take a broader view of their promotional efforts, accounting for each and every channel that they use.

Many politicians are tying in their offers and messages on social with their communications to voters via email, to their mobile ads as well. Following a recent and unexpected win in Michigan, for instance, Bernie Sanders’ fundraising offensive began just moments after polls closed. Sanders made a call for donations on Twitter that was followed simultaneously by an email reminder, with a link to the campaign’s fundraising page. It was a coordinated blast that really capitalized on momentum when it counted, and it reflected broader changes in social media. For example YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have recently made donation channels available to better assist with donor acquisition and stewardship.

facebook for business

And the uptick in total smartphone users from previous elections (65 percent as compared to 35) means that a majority of people have social media in their pockets 24/7.

B2B brands need to be just as mindful about the platforms their buyers use, and should make every effort to tie campaigns together across those channels for a more consistent and unified buying experience. This might mean reminding subscribers via email about an ongoing survey on Twitter; sharing the same asset you’re currently promoting on your home page via mobile ads; testing various calls-to-action on a single offer across web, email, mobile, and social all together and assessing what performs best. This might require looking at things from a bird’s eye view, but you’ll be grateful for the clarity, and you’ll be able to adjust based on data rather than guessing.

3. Content strategy by channel

Some political program managers have used channel-specific strategies for content, with longer policy discussions saved for forums like Facebook, Tumblr, and Reddit (where discussions among voters are farther-ranging and more plentiful), and more immediate announcement and real-time commentary reserved for Twitter and YouTube (popular places for candidates launching new ad campaigns and introducing messaging).

Here’s Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement, which is an ad:

And Donald Trump’s is a speech:

The value to this channel-specific approach: it has given each candidate a chance to focus their efforts on where their followings are strongest and loudest. As CNET reported on the second week of February, presidential candidate Donald Trump leads the pack on both Twitter and Facebook; Sanders, in stark contrast, is miles ahead on Reddit; and Clinton ranks high on Instagram. This is proof that performance on social media often comes down to key performance indicators (KPIs) that you set for yourself, in the context of past performance.

In conclusion, it’s well worth your time to consider reexamining your social presence. This might mean:

  • Evaluating the images you’ve featured in each of your profiles, and whether they meet the required dimensions
  • Identifying metrics that map to
    • Social reach (likes, followers, views, subscribers)
    • Social engagement (shares, retweets, comments)
    • Revenue (social leads turned sales opportunities, deals closed or facilitated via social media outreach)
  • Comparing the size and scope of your own network to the networks of your competitors via any number of solutions available (such as BuzzSumo or Quick Sprout)

This exercise may seem tedious, but it will point you in a better direction to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and it can be a great way to identify where you want to prioritize your social outreach.

And finally, remember those 22 approvers that stymied Romney’s social strategy? Plan your social outreach, establish procedures and process, train your team – and then trust them. Agility counts, as Oreo (and Obama) can tell you.