Ask most any political pundit a year ago who the 2016 Democratic nominee for president would be and virtually all of them would have told you that Hillary Clinton had the lock. But then something unexpected started happening: Bernie Sanders, the relatively unknown Independent senator from Vermont who was 60 to 70 points behind Clinton started attracting massive crowds to his burgeoning campaign.
By some key measures, Sanders was even drawing larger crowds than Obama did in 2008. The sizes of the crowds—tens of thousands of people at a time—had everyone asking, including the Washington Post, "How does he do it?"
While theories varied—"It’s his charisma!" "It’s his populist appeal!"—depending who you asked, many professional campaign watchers on both sides of the aisle, including the Washington Post, who posited the question, gave much of the credit to Sanders’s social media team.
"Sanders’ social media campaign gets a solid A-," says Nikki Usher Layser, assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, whose latest book is Making News at The New York Times. "#FeeltheBern has got to be one of the most creative hashtags I’ve ever seen for a campaign. That’s got to be one of the best turns-of-phrases for strategic communication—in just one hashtag, you can rally the troops, celebrate an accomplishment—it’s everything."
Layser isn’t alone in her praise for the Sanders campaign’s social media skills or the team’s ability to mobilize voters. Yet ironically there is one person who disagrees with her regarding the importance of Sanders’s digital agency: the man who runs it.
"All of these credited things are kind of silly," says Scott Goodstein, the 42-year-old CEO of Revolution Messaging, the politically progressive digital media agency that powers Sanders’s social media campaign. Goodstein credits the success of Sanders’s social media strategy to the candidate himself.
"You want to make sure that social media and digital all have the same authentic voice and reflect the exact campaign and candidate message—[and Sanders’s message] is amazing. I'm honored to work with not only a team of people that is involved in the day to day, but a candidate who really has a true, authentic message and a desire to get that message broadcast through social media and [one who] uses the medium himself."
Still Goodstein does acknowledge that his team’s understanding of how social media campaigning has changed since Obama’s 2008 campaign first leveraged the then-new medium, as well as its willingness to embrace new tools and social media platforms before other candidates, has given the Sanders campaign an edge. Here’s his top takeaways from running one of the most talked-about social media campaigns in recent memory.
In 2008 Obama’s presidential campaign was one of the first to dip its toes into the relatively unknown world of political campaigning on social media. But in terms of the capabilities of social media, eight years ago is a lifetime. And if anyone is qualified to talk about the differences between then and now, it’s Goodstein, because he was the external online director of the 2008 Obama campaign, which saw him in charge of all social media and mobile initiatives in Obama’s new media department.
"That social media, it was sort of experimental, trying to figure out how these things work," says Goodstein. "I mean that was a time when we were creating local organizing MySpace pages and Facebook didn't allow you to have more than five thousand friends in any way, shape, or form. It was very hard to organize a national fundraising day when the most you could have in your one group was five thousand people."
Goodstein also points out that back then there was no advertising on Twitter—even Facebook didn’t have a robust ad network. That’s not even to mention that the number of social media networks were relatively few and the limited types of media those networks let you share meant there wasn’t always an optimal way to engage supporters.
"In 2008 [social media] was just a giant microphone where you took a part of the press release and put it on Facebook," says Goodstein. "Today platforms are so much more powerful. There's an advertising component to these platforms, and you can actually engage with hundreds of thousands [of people]. You have more robust tools on places like Facebook that allow you to create quick events and, inside just Facebook alone, appoint different persons in an organizing channel. It's more than just experimental."
Case in point: In March the Sanders campaign decided to hold a last-minute rally in downtown Los Angeles in just a few days' time. Using little more than its Facebook assets, email blasts, and text messaging, the social media team was able to organize thousands of supports to show up on short notice.
"You know how big a task it is to move the rally accordingly based on estimated turnout for attendance, and doing it in two days' time in a city where nobody likes driving in [to downtown] at five o’clock, to go see a 74-year-old man speak for two hours?" Goodstein says.
But the team pulled it off so well, there were reportedly more than a thousand people waiting outside trying to get into the rally.
"That happened because A, his message was resonating with folks and people did want to go and see him speak, and B, we were able to quickly go and engage the right amount of people and the right people who would potentially go and hear him speak through all these different digital channels."
Facebook and email blasts aside, Goodstein notes it’s also a bigger social media world than in 2008 with new networks, and says that the Sanders campaign isn’t afraid to be the first to leverage these platforms. That’s something GWU’s Layser agrees with. She praises Sanders’s social media team’s ability to not only target likely voters on Facebook but to adopt newer social media platforms, including Snapchat, to mobilize young voters, the same target critical in Obama’s presidential runs.
"The Snapchat filters in the lead-up to Iowa were also a major moment for the campaign," Layser says. "These were brilliant—tapping into a key demographic and creating a sense of excitement. It showed the team knew the medium and the audience, and the team showed the irreverent, outside-the-beltway thinking in creating the filters that other candidates took a while to catch on to with Snapchat."
"Any campaign that thinks that these are silly little things that just the kids are doing is missing how powerfully, robustly, and rapidly you can move a message or push facts around the press and rebuttals around debates," says Goodstein.
Another key difference—and one of the markers of success—in Sanders’s social media strategy compared to Obama’s is that social media is intertwined into every department of the campaign, says Goodstein.
"Barack Obama's campaign—and all of social media campaigns back in 2008—were in a siloed universe. [As external online director of the Obama social media campaign] I was sitting inside one little element of the new media department," he says, noting that sometimes different elements would have different, even competing, takes on messages across platforms including digital, television, and print.
"Today, the Bernie Sanders campaign has let the digital team be baked into the entire DNA structure of the campaign. Press and communications are in constant coordination with our social media person, so it's not competing," says Goodstein. "The campaign’s organizers have adopted it, the communications folks have adopted it, and the rapid response policy fundraising clearly has adopted it."
But the social media tools available via various platforms like Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only thing every branch of the campaign has adopted. The entire team has also switched over to using the popular Slack instant messaging tool, which helps the campaign make rapid decisions when it comes to promoting various talking points or messages across different media channels to supporters.
"Slack means that we're all now super connected and can upload the stuff directly to each other's instant message," says Goodstein. "On debate nights, some of the team will be at the debate while some of the team will be elsewhere in the country, [but we’ll all be] on Slack, participating in the same conversation and moving everything from ideas to design and creative and execution."
Of course such a rapid response to the talking points raised by the other candidates in debates or in the press isn’t without risks, as the Sanders team found out when it incorrectly attributed pictures it tweeted of dilapidated houses in Detroit to free trade policies Hillary Clinton reportedly had a hand in. It turned out the houses were abandoned long before any free trade deal was in place.
As for the tweet in question, GWU’s Layser says one mistake doesn’t matter much. "It’s one drop in the bucket in a long campaign cycle." As for Goodstein he says any social media mistake is something you need to learn from and then move on.
"It's like anything else, that's the good news of social media growing up. For example, how do you deal with a young kid in the field saying something silly or not part of your talking points in a town hall?" says Goodstein. "One way to deal with it is just making sure that you're having enough education, enough eyes on things."
The final takeaway Goodstein says his team has learned is be open to social media engagement leading to organic changes in your digital strategy. You never know, your supporters on social media just might have the idea for one of the best hashtags of the campaign season.
"With #FeeltheBern, some volunteers had been really pushing the hashtag, so we said, let's make this part of their campaign, let's all bring it together, and we adopted #FeeltheBern in fun ways, and slowly brought it into the campaign," Goodstein says. "[What this lead to is] everybody seeing that what they're doing is actually making an impact and the campaign is echoing and embracing it."
"We started selling #FeeltheBern coffee mugs and shirts, and other people recognized that and gave us other suggestions for the campaign," says Goodstein. "[Because of that] other artists have come out and joined the campaign. It’s become this organic team effort, and that's all from just interacting and engaging in a two-way set of communication with different communities around the Internet."
And that team effort shows no signs of abating. Sanders is still drawing massive crowds and last Tuesday he achieved a critical victory over Clinton in Wisconsin. Still, Goodstein says, most of the credit for getting those Wisconsin supporters to show up and vote goes to Sanders himself.
"Campaigning has always been about three variables. It's always been about time, people, and money. These social media tools we’re leveraging have made it easier for us to spend less time organizing more people, and for less money," he says. "But the reality is that none of those do well without a candidate who has a powerful message that gets people to engage. I'm honored and lucky to be working with a candidate who is the perfect one in that regard, because Bernie Sanders clearly has an authentic message that resonates."