The Future of Winning Campaigns: Social Media

Whew. The U.S. election is over and now we’re deluged with analysis. There have been quite a few pieces on the role of social media in the election (e.g., here and here, and if you like infographics, this is a good one) and the gist appears to be that Obama won on social media. Which he did. It’s difficult to assess whether the success of Obama’s social media campaign is a reflection, a measure, or the reason for the success of his traditional campaign.

In one respect, you would expect a younger, more Democratic population to be more engaged in social media and therefore see a higher proportion of pro-Obama statements and actions on social media. This would lead me to suspect that the sampling bias invalidates the effectiveness of social media as a measure of the success of a campaign.

As a reflection of the success of the campaign, the same sampling bias poses a problem, however the sheer level of engagement suggests that something was going well for Obama’s campaign.

I’m inclined to believe, however, that the huge social media push for and buzz about Obama was actually a large part of the reason for his win. We already know that social media can be instrumental in increasing voter turnout. However, my recent experiences with the Clark municipal campaign in Saskatoon suggest to me that we’ve turned the corner on social media in political campaigns.

First, it cost us more than 20 times as much to identify supporters by phone than it did to identify them through social media. Second, the success rate in reaching people through email and social media was 10-15 times higher than through phoning and door knocking. And third, it was faster and took less effort.

I remember looking around campaign headquarters with two hours of voting to go. We had a few people finishing up phone calls, a couple of people coming in the door from door knocking, and three people sitting at a table watching Facebook and Twitter feeds. I grinned and noted that in eight years (I was being conservative), we’d have a room full of people staring at computer screens and typing messages into social media and one guy in the corner making phone calls. The campaign manager laughed uncertainly.

While the ground battle remains important and door knocking is critical, social media and electronic contacts like text messages and email will win campaigns in the next decade. The Obama campaign was only the beginning.

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