The Evolving use of Social Media for Political Campaigns

[This post was originally published on Social Media Today on 17th August 2011. You can view the original post here.]

Campaigns and social media have been in the news a lot this year – Republican primaries and London riots in just the last week – and the exposure will increase as the US heads into election year in 2012. I want to look at how political campaigns have evolved in their use of the internet and social media, and see what possibilities exist in the near-term. For this purpose I’ve looked at two types of campaigns:

  1. Campaigns that are centrally organized by the political party or the candidate’s team. Here I will look primarily at Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008
  2. Campaigns that are organized bottom-up. Here I will look at how groups used social media during the Arab Spring

Centrally Organized Campaigns

Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 had many of the features of successful campaigns: press coverage, successful fundraising and exciting people. He achieved this not just through traditional campaign strategies but also by extensive use of the internet. He used his official blog and to bring people together and organize fundraisers. This was cheaper than traditional fundraising and resulted in a hug number of small donations, allowing him to avoid fundraising limits. However, his team missed the crucial element of converting enthusiastic participants into active voters. As Clay Shirky points out in Here Comes Everybody [link], Dean created a movement that strongly appealed to some people, but which participation became more important than voting.

Some of the same strategies Dean used were taken up by Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign. Barack Obama was called the King of Social Networking by the Washington Post as he became the first social media President. His campaign team was the first to fully understand and harness the potential of social media to communicate his message and energize supporters to donate and vote.

Barack Obama’s campaign team didn’t invent anything new but strategically used social media, the internet, SMS and emails to establish his candidacy and win the elections:

1.       Build his political brand

Obama used social media to lower the cost of building a political brand. This was essential because there was very little brand awareness about Obama compared to his major competitors Hilary Clinton and John McCain, apart from 2 books (admittedly best sellers) and his 2004 convention speech.

2.       Created

A full-fledged social network, allowed users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They could also join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events. This was the centre of his social networking strategy and all pages on other platforms brought users here

3.       Present across multiple social media sites

Obama didn’t use just one platform but ensured his message was spread across multiple sites that complemented his message of change. He engaged people, listened and used not only the major sites like Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter, but also more specific sites like Glee and BlackPlanet

4.       Donations

The majority of Obama’s donations came from donors giving just $200 or less. He achieved this by ensuring that on each site there was a donation widget

5.       Encouraged participation

Traditionally campaign teams and spin doctors exerted as much control over content as possible. However, keeping with his change message, Obama allowed and encouraged supporters to participate by posting videos, photos and testimonials.

The effectiveness of Obama’s online strategy to engage and mobilize people can be seen in some of the numbers [reference]:

  • 6.5 million online donations
  • $600+ million campaign funds raised, most of it online
  • 13 million email addresses
  • 1 billion email sent
  • 2 million profiles on
  • 200,000 offline events planned
  • 400,000 blog posts written
  • 35,000 volunteer groups created

Image credit cqpolitics

Bottom-up Campaigns 

These are campaigns that are not initiated by a political party or a candidate / politician. They are characterized by groups of people who have new found political power because of the ability to use social media to mobilize large numbers of like-minded people. The most recent large-scale campaign was earlier this year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially Tunisia and Egypt.

There have been a lot of debates on the importance of otherwise of social media to the Arab Spring. People make revolutions, but in this case social media played an integral role as a community builder and communication tool. Control over communication is vital as uprisings gain momentum to provide a common purpose to the community, keep them mobilized and updated. Typically during a coup or revolution the first buildings that are targeted by the opposition are TV and radio.

Image credit gaitri59

In the case of the Arab Spring, social media allowed protestors to both communicate across the community and determine the media output beyond their country without having to control the stations. People were able to instantly self-broadcast events, information and ideas, unrestricted by media and news deadlines and editorial controls. This contributed to the speed at which the revolutions moved and the momentum they maintained, and allowed news networks, especially Al-Jazeera, to continue spreading information and news across the region.

I think there are two major lessons from the Arab Spring that political parties and candidates can leverage:

  1. Citizens and communities of like-minded people have political clout because of social networks
  2. Democratic movements are about political change driven by social networks rather than by elites. This is where social media and social technologies are going to have the largest impact in the coming years.

What Next?

Obama was the pace-making politician in using social media but things have changed since 2008. One of thehallmarks of his 2008 campaign was how email, text messages and the internet were used to reach voters for organizing and fundraising. Since then Twitter and Facebook have increased hugely in popularity and smartphones and apps are far more common. In 2012 it looks like Obama will be more expansive in how he uses social media to mobilize funds and supporters. Community will still be at the heart of his campaign, but additionally he will look at making email, website, texts, mobile apps and social networks work together in harmony to communicate his message – “Are You In”.

Here are three things that he and other parties and candidates will need to do to run successful campaigns:

1.       Control communication using social media

No politician can control how the media uses and spins his message. One way around this is using social media channels to distribute the message. Also, with a large community eager to listen it is important to speak directly to them. Obama used YouTube to announce his reelection campaign. Twitter is a far more popular tool now than in 2008, and Obama’s campaign team have given it more importance by setting-up separate Twitter accounts for all 50 states to target state-relevant messages to supporters

2.       Adapting to the increasing social integration and sharing features

Obama’s campaign team have included social features on, allowing users to log into the site with their Facebook accounts, making it easier to invite friends and share updates. The campaign team has also added an official Facebook app “Are You In”.

3.       Smartphones and mobile apps

The official White House mobile app is a crucial element in building his community and communicating directly with supporters with alerts about speeches that can be watched live from the app, behind-the-scenes photos and videos, and updates from the official blog

Recently, a great example of using social media to communicate directly to a community and leverage sharing features was by the Social Democratic party in Zurich. Rather than only broadcast their policies, the party used Facebook as a platform for voters to suggest ideas and vote on ideas that they would like to be put into practice. Once the candidates got elected they took the most popular ideas from Facebook and passed them as legislation. The video is below. Hopefully this inspires other parties to try similar campaigns.