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.



5 Powerful Twitter Research Tools

[This post was originally posted on and was published on June 16th 2011. You can read the original article here]

Twitter has a wealth of information, news and opinions on every topic imaginable. Identifying and separating what is relevant, interesting or actionable is a tough task but fortunately there are numerous tools that help us navigate through the Twittersphere.

There is not a single Twitter app or tool that satisfies all research needs. Most of my Twitter use happens through the iPad Twitter app or Tweetdeck on my laptop. But there are still times when it is necessary to go beyond those platforms to find and research information or people and to engage in conversations relevant to your area of interest.

I have categorized Twitter research tools into 5 broad areas and selected tools that help analyse data and user behaviour, identify influencers, and engage with people.

1. Research into your Twitter usage

Tool: TweetStats

If you want to figure out how often you tweet, when you do it, and your retweet and @ reply habits then TweetStats is ideal. It does this extremely well by presenting your behaviour in simple, clear graphs. It is divided into 3 sections:

Tweet Stats

This section analyses how you use Twitter. It displays in graphs how many times you tweet per month, allowing you to zoom in on a particular month and day to analyze your total tweets, replies and retweets. It gives you a break-down of your tweet density, aggregate daily and hourly tweets, who you reply to, who you retweet and what interface you use for Twitter.

Tweet Cloud

This section presents you with a cloud for both your retweeted hashtags and your most frequently used hashtags. If it is not something you have checked before the results can be a surprise.

Follower Stats

The final section allows you to track changes to your friend and follower count over time.

Tweetstats is ideal if you are curious about your tweeting habits and if you want to research what other users tweet about by using the Tweet Cloud feature.

2. Research Twitter Trends

Tool: Trendistic

Twitter’s ‘trending topics’ feature helps users see what’s being talked about, but there is not much you can do with it. TweetStats Trends feature provides a nice graph of the day’s top 10 trends and what is currently trending. But if you are trying to research topics in more depth then these tools are inadequate.

Trendistic, in contrast, provides a broader range of features that allow users to track trends on Twitter through a visual graph of the number of mentions along with random tweets about that topic. This helps you keep track of conversations over time to see how often they are tweeted about. For example, it is possible to see how popular ‘icloud’ is on June 7th among Twitter users and see what people are tweeting about ‘icloud’ over the course of the day.

The feature that I like most on Trensidtic is the ability to compare up to 6 words and graphs their popularity against each other across 24 hours or up to the previous 6 months. If you want to share your chart you can either embed it or share it on Twitter. You can also receive alert emails about a topic once it starts to trend.

There is also a list of trending topics over the last 7 days with details about when each topic was hot and when the maximum number of tweets occurred. You can view a graph of its trending history and selected tweets.

3. Research domain experts

Tool: WeFollow 
WeFollow is a great user directory with a clean and simple interface. It doesn’t stand out compared to other Twitter user directories, but what I like about is it gives a quick idea of who the most popular people in your industry or interest area are. It uses hashtags to categorize people and covers numerous popular categories such as Music, Sport, Tech, Politics, Fashion and Health. Anyone can add themselves to the directory by applying up to 5 hashtags to themselves.

When you search for your topic of interest it lists users based on who is the ‘Most Influential’ and who has the ‘Most Followers’. This is a simple and obvious way of organizing users and is effective when you want to find out whom to follow on specific topics. Often, however, the people you want to engage with are not those with the most followers or highest number of tweets (if you can even get their attention). Knowing who the influencers are in your interest area is better handled by a tool like Klout than WeFollow.

4. Research Influencers

Tool: Klout

Klout is a measurement tool that helps you focus on how messages are spread through your network. It gives an indication of a person’s reach within their network and how engaged they are with their network. It achieves this by measuring aspects of Twitter usage and focusing on how messages are spread through their network.

To calculate your total social influence Klout measures users in three categories:

Network Influence

This measures how effective you are at capturing the attention of influencers. It measure a user’s list inclusion, influence of followers, influence of retweeters, influence of friends, influence of people who mention you, and your follower / following ratio.

Amplification Probability

This measures how often your content is reposted or retweeted by looking at your engagement level in conversations, how often your content is reported, and if your posts result in new followers and conversations. It measures uniqueness, likes per post, comment per post, retweet percentage, inbound messages per outbound content, and how often you update.

True Reach

This measures how far your influence reaches based on how engaged your audience is, how likely are they to read your content, and respond or share it. True Reach measures a user’s followers, retweets, unique commentators and likes, mentions, list counts, and mutual followers.

Klout is a great way to see how well you are building your influence especially by giving you more information about your social graph. It takes a fundamentally different approach to a tool like WeFollow. It adopts a bottom-up approach to measuring influence in contrast to looking at who has the most number of followers or tweets. Klout thus enables users to research who are the influencers that are listening and engaging with their network and so whose messages are going furthest. I see three specific benefits:

1. It allows users to research and target influential Twitter users to follow and – hopefully – engage with

2. It allows users who share a lot of content to track their online reach or influence and to see how active their followers are

3. It allows users to benchmark themselves against high influencers

5. How to Engage using Twitter

Tool: InboxQ

So far we have covered tools that allow you to research your or other users’ Twitter usage and analyse and benchmark your social web clout. However, Twitter is also a platform where a lot of Q&A happens, and it is crucial both for brands and individual users’ own influence to engage with people. Finding the right questions and comments to respond to, and leveraging this for businesses and users, is a task made much easier by InboxQ.

It is a web browser extension (and a plug-in on Seesmic Desktop) that enables conversations by sending a real-time stream of Twitter questions related to brands, products, or subjects of your choice to your browser. Apparently only 1% of tweets with questions marks are real questions, so InboxQ uses natural language processing software to detect real questions.

I like the fact that InboxQ is an extension – one less website to open. This means it gets more attention than other tools. It is very simple to start a campaign by just adding terms or keywords that cover your area of interest. Relevant tweets are then sent to your inbox. You can also refer questions to your Twitter followers via a direct message, set-up questions to be answered later, and track answers. Expanding InboxQ to also crawl Quora, as it plans to, will be a great additional feature.

I hope this article will help users understand how they can use Twitter for research. There are many more Twitter tools than the ones discussed here, so if you happen to know some that you think can be added in the list, please let me know. Also, I have summarized my research below in a presentation.

A Case Study of SCVNGR’s Game Layer

Mashable has written a case study on SCVNGR’s campaign with the restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings. The campaign ran for 3 weeks leading up to March Madness.

BWW partnered with SCVNGR to add a competitive game layer to make every visit to the restaurants more fun and engaging. It started with 3 challenges and as players accumulated points they could redeem them for rewards (for e.g. free Coca Cola).  When the challenges were completed players then leveled-up and were allowed to create their own challenges, allowing them to become participants in the game. Apart from sharing scores and photos on SCVGNR, a leaderboard showed the points total for users on a national level, with the winners getting tickets to the NBA finals.

The game was a basic application of game mechanics, focusing on providing extrinsic motivators to players. In my view, this type of game with the same level of rewards will become repetitive pretty quickly. For any game it is important to reduce the value of extrinsic rewards and increase the intrinsic rewards, allowing players to improve their mastery and keeping them engaged. However for BWW and it was a big success, with over 184,000 unique players, 1 in 3 returning to play, and over 100 million social impressions on Facebook and Twitter. So successful that they are starting another game, Flavour Fantastic Challenge.

Does Facebook Hurt Relationships?

This is an infographic on the affect Facebook has on relationships. What I find most interesting are the high number of potential stressors that people are exposed to by using Facebook – status updates, friends and contacts, etiquette, and your mood and status. Sharing so much information publicly makes us more conscious of how we are perceived.

Like most things in life, it suggests that a little exposure is better than a lot.

Facebook and Relationships
Collaboration between All Facebook and Online Dating University

The Psychology Behind Social Commerce

I’ve been researching for Kuliza’s upcoming Social Technology Quarterly Report and trying to get an understanding of how social commerce works. I found an excellent and comprehensive post by Paul Marsden that explains the impact of social psychology on shopping. If you prefer visuals you can check out the presentation version instead of the blog post.

He explains that when shopping, people are thinslicing all the information they are confronted with. We do this so we are left with only the most relevant cues to make our shopping decisions. The article outlines in detail the 6 heuristics that people use to process the thin-sliced information:

  1. Social Proof – we take our cues from what other people have done
  2. Authority – we take our cues from what people who have specialist knowledge, experience or expertise have done
  3. Scarcity – we take our cues from how available opportunities are and fear of potential loss
  4. Liking – we take our cues from people we like
  5. Consistency –  we take our cues from our beliefs and past behaviours
  6. Reciprocity – we take our cues from being able to repay favours

Understanding how people make decisions will help brands develop better-informed and more focused social commerce strategies.