Politicians, Campaigns Have No Idea How to Go Viral

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The Influence Project

Candidates are still skeptical about the role of social media in our political discourse: Even though Facebook boasts more than 130 million active users in the U.S., many campaigns are spending less than 5% of their budgets online. The figures were presented last night at a Facebook-Politico event called "Going Viral," where a panel of new media experts demonstrated how difficult it is to develop a digital strategy.

The panelists offered tips and tricks for engaging constituents online, but for every rule of thumb stated, there seemed to be at least one negative instance of that use. "Authenticity is what's helping to carry the day," began Facebook's Adam Conner, citing how candidates tweeting themselves will build a strong connection with followers. But after panelists pointed out a slew of mistakes and flubs, Conner amended that: "maybe you can be too authentic at times," he said.

Other panelists described Sarah Palin as one of the Web's top influentials, but were unsure how it'd affect her political aspirations. Her misspelled tweets ("refudiate") and controversial Facebook posts ("death panels") were polarizing, appealing to her own supporters while further alienating her detractors. George Washington professor Matthew Hindman said social media failed to reach the most important constituents: independents.

"The big takeaway point is you don't [reach the middle] with social media—I've yet to see any evidence that social media is going persuade truly persuadable voters," Hindman said. "[Sarah Palin] is definitely more likely to be the Republican nominee for president, but less likely to actually be president."

Even successful viral campaigns didn't have much of an impact. Democratic social media strategist Phil de Vellis lauded Alabama agriculture commission candidate Dale Peterson's infamous ad, which now has close to 2 million views on YouTube. However, he pointed out that Peterson failed to win his bid, coming in third place.

So what could these experts prescribe for digital strategy? EngageDC's Mindy Finn, who has run many e-campaigns including Mitt Romney's, recommends politicians be "less cautious" online. Don't just repost press releases on Facebook, she says. Don't use Twitter and Facebook the same way—that is, don't retweet Facebook posts. Don't talk in the third person on Twitter. "Candidates must immerse themselves in the experience—be very honest and authentic about it," she explained. "We always to advocate that candidates do some of this on their own."

But it's not always that easy to go viral, and not just because of the inconsistent nature of what goes viral on the Web. Candidates themselves, said de Vellis, are still incredibly skeptical about the Internet.

"Candidates always think, 'oh, I want to have a viral video,' and we say, 'okay, we need to do something kind-of off the wall and crazy.' And they say, 'oh no, I just want to talk about my policy platform,'" de Vellis said. "Well, that's not going to go viral."

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  • FlutterDrew

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  • Mark Coren

    I think it is going to be difficult for political messages to go viral for while and Adam Conner hits on reason why. The phrase "too authentic" is becoming common currency in discussions between social media consultants and their clients. It reveals social media's greatest strength, and one of the great cultural weaknesses that will inhibit viral messages.

    In much of recent American culture, especially in politics, people are seemingly most interested in hearing a message that reaffirms their beliefs, rather than evaluating a situation and examining how their beliefs might serve to influence it for the better. Social media ultimately strips away the ability to create an illusory marketing-based version of things. It is forcing us to deal with the world more as a continuum of values rather than a black-and-white, right-or-wrong dichotomy that has become the popular substitute for thinking these days.

    Under these circumstances, it is going to take one of two things for messages to go viral. In one case, a candidate or group who is perceived as mainstream will have to align loosely with vocal extremists. This is how Sarah Palin has managed to stay in the political discussion in spite of many challenges that would have trampled her in the past. The other circumstance is when a politician who is seen as an outlier will move toward commonality among groups in the face of divisive rhetoric from their opponents. We are seeing this now in many local races around the country, from a range of political interests.

    It will be telling to see how the elections turn out next week. The analysis will undoubtedly show which of these two approaches to authenticity bears fruit now. Regardless of the outcomes, I suggest that two more years of evolution in social media will change the landscape radically by the time the next presidential election arrives.

  • Aly-Khan Satchu

    Its quite a Complex c21st Operation, this Intersection between Politicians and New Media. It surely cannot be ignored and a Sina Qua Non of c21st Politics is that You have to be engaged. I think You simply cannot be a Robot or delegate the Task. The Opportunity to create a continuous Dialogue is simply one that cannot be forgone. Sure There will be Considerable Noise, Interference and Blow Back but that is a Price that is but a small exaction, when it allows practically Anyone to get their Voice heard. These Platforms are Noisy but Democratic in that regard. The c21st is clearly set to be remembered as the Information and Connected Century. You are surely out of the Political Game if You are disconnected. Blair created a 24 Hour always on Media Team under Campbell. The Requirement today is surely even more intense given the sheer Proliferation of Content. The Nature of Google's Algorithims is that the more unpleasant Stories tend to percolate to the Top. Every Politician will have to be equipped with Information Warriors who can combat potentially Negative News Flow.

    The Trickiest Part I suppose is that now we are living a Life Inside Out. If The Inside is a little unpleasant it will get outside I am afraid and thats a Risk that did not exist to this degree before.

    Aly-Khan Satchu