From cat videos to “The Harlem Shake,” the 2012 social election is all but a distant memory, as Republican candidates are taking to Facebook in new and creative ways to stay one step ahead of the competition in the 2014 cycle.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate, is involved in one of the most closely watched races of the 2014 cycle. The outcome may serve as a measure of how well the Republican Party has caught up to Democrats on the social media front, given its weaknesses, perceived or real, in 2012.
According to MSNBC, “McConnell’s team is investing heavily in a bold social strategy aimed at making policy discussions fun, palatable, and shareable,” despite the absence of an opponent and with 17 months until the first vote is cast.
This includes promoting posts on Facebook to users who don’t subscribe to campaign updates, said the McConnell camp’s digital strategist, Vincent Harris, who also ran social media for the presidential bids of Newt Gingrich. The campaign is already creating bold videos for the 71-year-old incumbent senator that seem tailor-made for sites like BuzzFeed.
We asked Harris about the campaign’s digital strategy and his party’s chances in 2014.
Q: How do you think the 2014 campaigns will build on the momentum of the first “social” elections in 2012?
A: 2014 will be different largely because the Republican party is playing catch-up from having been behind the previous six years. This is happening, and quickly, with Republicans launching applications on Facebook such as the one the National Republican Senatorial Committee did this week in the special election in Massachusetts. Campaigns and issue groups will be looking to tap into the sheer amount of time spent on social media and the incredibly rich data that come from years of interactions on those sites.
The way that voters are consuming information continues to change rapidly. Fewer people are watching less live television with every passing year, and more people are turning to their mobile devices for snackable, entertaining content. It’s critical that content is easily shared on mobile devices. Across campaign websites we manage, we’re seeing traffic upward of 30 percent coming from mobile devices, and often, Facebook is a top-three referrer. Any campaign that launches a website that’s not responsive is simply not prepared for today’s market.
The trick for campaigns will be to find unique, interesting ways to reach voters as social media becomes more fragmented away from Facebook only. Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and LinkedIn all have desirable audiences for campaigns, but how can campaigns use them to reach voters in ways audiences on those sites would appreciate? Simply reposting Facebook content to each is not enough.
The RNC took a good step forward with its chief technology officer hire (former Facebook Engineering Manager Andy Barkett). It says a lot for Republicans but also for the industry as it continues to move forward.
Q: Will Republicans catch up in the next cycle without a presidential contest? What will you do differently for candidates versus 2012?
A: I don’t feel like Republicans really did as bad as people made it out to be. I wrote a piece for BuzzFeed last August about (Mitt) Romney, and not (President Barack) Obama, winning on Facebook, and many of the points in made in there I hold to still today. What President Obama did on social that Republicans didn’t is he used social not as politically minded people do, but as average Americans do. He used cat memes, made cultural references, and posted entertaining content. People are on Facebook not to interact with politicians, but to see the drama in their friends’ lives. That’s the problem candidates face, and ones they must meet head-on. With an endless amount of entertaining and personalized content, why would a voter want to listen to something boring? They wouldn’t.
The McConnell campaign this cycle is a great example of how Republicans are using social media as it needs to be. There was a good piece in The Daily Dot about the campaign’s use of memes, and I think you’ll see other Republican campaigns utilize social in similar ways — persuasion by entertainment. Republicans need to get on board, or they’ll find that they’re talking to an audience of only rabid supporters and not average voters that are needed to win elections.
Q: What new social media channels, such as Snapchat, do you think will play a role in 2014?
A: Snapchat, there’s an interesting medium. I think there’s a difference in social media channels playing a role to get media attention, and those playing a meaningful role. To have a meaningful role, the audience needs to be large and of voting age. Previously mentioned LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram meet those criteria and I think will all play a role, and need to play a role.
Q: Which Facebook tools will be meaningful for campaigns in 2014? Is the new hashtag feature important for political advertising?
A: With the hashtag feature having just been released, we haven’t been able to test it out yet. Twitter released very cool lead-generation cards a couple weeks ago, which we’ve used to some success with Sen. McConnell’s campaign. These large online properties understand what advertisers need now: They need email addresses, which, despite email being the grandpa as a unique identifier online, has become even increasingly important this year, as email unlocks so many advertising opportunities to reach individuals, and in politics, it’s all about the individual.
Campaigns need to continue to utilize the ability to pull data from Facebook — to use prefilled forms to collect information — and they need to remember that while they may be getting more data via another medium, the Facebook information has been verified and should be handled like a precious commodity.
Q: What’s your social media and Facebook strategy? How will the campaign define social success?
A: Building a community that’s interested and engaged is critical to success on Facebook. Vanity metrics aside, it’s important that people being brought into the page via ads actually like the content, otherwise money and time are wasted. It’s important that content is fresh, interesting, visually appealing, and easily interacted with.
Every political campaign is different because every candidate and race is different. Based on the situation, I will suggest a different social media strategy and plan, one unique to the individual race. The goal, though, is to engage, to persuade, to make people laugh, and, when necessary, to make them upset about the direction of the country. The goal of political campaigns hasn’t changed in centuries in this country: Motivate people to get out to vote for your candidate. What has changed is the method, and now more than ever, it’s important to run a constant campaign, one where issues are responded to in real-time online.
Readers: Are you tuning out or tuning in to the Kentucky or Massachusetts Senate races on Facebook?