[crosslinked from LinkedIn]

As someone steeped in social media, I’ve been watching each of the presidential campaigns closely to see how they are using social media well — or not. [Disclosure: I worked on Obama’s campaign in 2008 and have donated to it this election season. I also went to the same high school and business school as Romney. To the extent possible, I’ve tried to be objective in my analysis, but inevitably my biases will come through.] Here are some observations, as well as opportunities for the future:

  • It’s Not About the Numbers. I’ve seen many commenters point to the overwhelmingly higher numbers of Likes and Followers that Obama has over Romney on Facebook and Twitter, respectively. It’s easy to get lured by those numbers, but they are highly misleading because Obama has had four years as candidate and President to gather his followers. What will matter in this election is how engaged these followers are, in not only amplifying their candidates’ message, but whether they can get people they know to vote.
  • Each Campaign Plays to their Strengths. My colleague, Susan Etlinger, who researches social media analytics, cautioned that looking at the stats alone don’t tell the full story. As an example, she pointed me to recent data from Pew that shows Democrats and liberals as being more engaged politically than Republicans. Her advice: Look at each of the respective campaigns from the perspective of where they are starting. With Republicans less likely to energize their base via social networking sites, they are more likely to focus on awareness and outreach to Independents, whereas Democrats will be keen to get a disengaged base fired up to get out the vote of intended Democratic voters.
  • Romney Makes Smart Use of Facebook Marketing. Romney has made good Facebook ad buys, especially with Sponsored Results where Romney ads started showing up next to search terms such as “democrat” and even “obama”. The results have been significant –- Romney has been gaining Facebook Likes at twice the rate of Obama.
  • But Romney Misses the Opportunity to Be Personal. While his campaign has mastered social media marketing, Romney hasn’t capitalized on social media’s ability to be personal and direct. The tweets are annoyingly in the first person when it’s clear that Romney is not writing them. My hope is that the new-found, more personal Romney that is currently on the campaign trail –- telling his personal story directly rather than through surrogates –- will also make an appearance via social media. While Romney himself may not feel that comfortable engaging in the back and forth of social media, even a video of him speaking directly to people in social media would be a bonus.
  • Obama Appears On Uber-Cool Reddit –- But Dodges Tough Questions. Obama  appeared on social news site Reddit, where he engaged in thirty minutes of “Ask Me Anything” (AMA). While Obama gained serious social media cred with his appearance, answering 10 questions and saying that the Reddit experiences was “not bad,” he also avoided several tough and popular subjects such as the legalization/regulation of marijuana dispensaries, aliens (!) and lobbying. While the Reddit session may be called “Ask Me Anything,” it could be more correctly characterized as “Ask Me Anything But I May Not Tell.”
  • Obama’s Social Media Team: Masters of The Moment. The Obama campaign tweets between 10 and 20 times a day. That’s usually three to four times more frequently than the Romney campaign. The result: Obama’s team has a lot more practice and a better sense of what resonates and gets spread. This culminated in the picture-perfect moment during the Republican National Convention when Obama’s Twitter account sent out a picture of the President sitting in his chair, a response to Clint Eastwood’s discussion with a the invisible Obama. What the Obama campaign did was leverage what Hamish McKenzie so eloquently described as the emotion of the moment and created the most tweeted post for the entire Republican convention.

The key for Romney in these closing days of the campaign is to tap into his loyal base on sites like Facebook and Twitter to share with their undecided friends the Mitt that they know and believe in. But socialgraphics –- the social behavior of key audience groups -– are stacked against him. According to Pew, only 25% of Republicans are likely to recruit people to get involved with political issues that matter to them, as opposed to 35% for Democrats. But even worse, social networking site (SNS) users (84% of SNS-using Republicans and 79% of SNS-using Democrats) say little or nothing of their recent posts have anything to do with politics.

My takeaway from this analysis is that while the campaigns are using social media in creative ways, they both still miss more opportunities than they capture. The biggest takeaway is that neither has created a culture of sharing with their followers. Activity is still focused on messaging, and a predictable call-and-response routine of asking for donations and the cash register singing.

In the end, votes win elections. With a dismal 58% of the US eligible voters actually voting in the 2008 election, the campaigns could be doing so much more to engage people in a dialog, encouraging us to share our views not on politics but the issues we care about. But in the polite company of our friends, we do just the opposite and hide our political leanings from each other. My hope is that in the waning days of this election cycle, more of us will be inspired to engage in civil discourse directly with each other, in the social channels that we inhabit.

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