Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How is New Media Changing Politics?

Part 10 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

Those who are highly engaged in the political realm hear a lot about the prospects of “New Media” everyday. But what role does New Media really have in politics? More importantly, how can New Media be used effectively by campaigns and politicians?

When people think of New Media, they often associate it with social networking - Facebook, Twitter, etc. - but in fact it encompasses much more than that. Resources such as YouTube, social bookmarking sites (Digg, Reddit, etc.) and the blogosphere are some of the other important tools in the New Media hype. And all of these tools are becoming more and more important in politics.

For example, as newspapers fall by the wayside, campaigns are increasing their outreach to bloggers. As we noted in Part 6 of this series, campaigns can engage these citizen journalists by sending them interesting YouTube videos, news clips, and other online materials regarding the race. It helps build a relationship with friendly bloggers and that can help get your name and message out there the way you want it to.

Yet, much of the New Media world requires navigation on the part of the user. In other words, if a voter is not interested in the campaign, they’re not going to subscribe to an email list, become a fan on Facebook, or a follower on Twitter.

So why are these tools still important?

There is one important group of voters that are still going to follow the campaign with these tools - supporters. Keeping supporters engaged is a highly important function of any campaign. Without engaged supporters, a campaign is unable to raise money or find volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls.

That means campaigns have to keep supporters interested and active in the daily developments of the race.

Let’s use Twitter as an example. As we mentioned in our own Twitter study last month, the effectiveness of such outreach comes down to what we call the “Twitter talent.” A major part of it is passing the “‘Who Cares?’ Test” - you have to post something relevant that your followers will be interested in.

So we decided to do an analysis of the New Media strategies of the two main campaigns of the Virginia Gubernatorial race going on right now between Democrat Criegh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell.

Deeds has some Tweets and Facebook updates that supporters can use. He mostly uses the social networking tools to update supporters on where he’ll be speaking each day. Occasionally, he also throws in less useful updates.

Take these three Tweets (in chronological order) on August 1st:

“Today is Jerry Garcia's birthday. We turn to Workingman's Dead”

“At FedEx in hot anticipation of Sir Paul. Surrounded by good friends”

“Still waiting. @jbtaylor I like it all but I'm partial to the Revolver-Rubber Soul period for the Fab Four”

And in the past two weeks, he has only posted one link outside of Twitter. On Facebook, his posts have been more relevant - he regularly posts videos, events, and news bits that will encourage supporters. Yet his outreach to them on Facebook is still a little weak - he has less than 10,000 supporters while McDonnell has over 16,000. He also has just more than half as many followers on Twitter as McDonnell.

In fact, McDonnell uses Facebook just as well - constantly linking to his website on updates, informing supporters about upcoming events, and posting even more videos and positive news stories as Deeds. On Twitter, McDonnell constantly links to videos, pictures, news stories, and other websites that will be of use to supporters - engaging them so they will be encouraged to help his campaign.

Obviously, it would be irresponsible to credit McDonnell’s lead on Deeds solely with his dominant social networking strategy, but it certainly helps.

Another favorite New Media tool has been YouTube. Although we were quick to criticize this video for its inaccuracies, it certainly served its purpose well - it engaged and encouraged like-minded Recovery Act opponents.

Of course, using New Media as effectively as it can be used takes a lot of work. Campaigns that actually have a New Media coordinator - whose sole responsibility is social networking, engaging bloggers, posting on sites such as YouTube and Flickr, social bookmarking, etc. - can have a tremendous advantage in fundraising, volunteer support, and even message delivery.

Yet there is still a danger to such a strategy.

Back in June we mentioned how a few GOP operatives and activists were stepping over the line with some of their Tweets. For example, Mike Green of the GOP firm Starboard Communications tweeted “JUST HEARD THAT OBAMA IS GOING TO IMPOSE A 40% TAX ON ASPIRIN BECAUSE IT’S WHITE AND IT WORKS.”

He later apologized - using two tweets to do so.

And nobody has been scrutinized for their use of New Media by the traditional media sources than Sarah Palin. Just last week she talked about an Obama “death panel” euthanizing her baby with Down Syndrome on a Facebook status update.

The point is that politicians wouldn’t (in most cases) say those sorts of things to rally supporters in a speech - because that too would be picked up by the mainstream media - so they shouldn’t try to engage supporters with such rhetoric in the social networking realm either.

And that’s another reason to have a special New Media coordinator rather than a candidate updating their New Media tools themselves - message discipline.

Like so many other advancements in campaign politics, just because the technology is changing doesn’t mean the basic principles are.

Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed “21st Century Campaigning” - it was certainly a pleasure to give our predictions and analysis of the changes happening in the political campaign world. Soon we’ll be starting a new series that should be fun: “Politics in the Movies

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