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."