Political social media strategy may be a reflection of politics in general: controlled and safe on the surface, and a little noisy when you dig into the details.
In an interview with Mashable, Romney digital director Zac Moffatt asserts that Obama is working from the same playbook that they did in 2008. He goes on to explain:
“I’d love to sit on a panel with the Obama campaign and talk about online advertising. We think it’s one of our greatest strengths, and it’s great that our strength matches up with one of the greatest financial drivers this year.”
Moffatt makes an interesting point.
What is the 2008 playbook?
The contrast that Moffatt appears to be making is between the media channel that Obama has been able to create and how Romney has been able to augment his social presence with digital advertising. I imagine that the difference has a lot to do with Romney’s financial advantage (Romney purportedly spent $120K last week on a Twitter trending topic). It would be ignorant to assume that any political social media strategy could rely on earned media alone, and that’s where the shrewdness argument gets a little fuzzy for me. You see, Obama is spending money on digital advertising, too.
Moffatt makes a point to cite statistics showing that engagement is disproportionate to the earned media advantage that Obama has. For instance, in the primaries he cited a 2-to-1 retweet advantage for Obama over Romney, despite the 16:1 follower advantage. Ignoring follower and fan counts, 2:1 is still a sizable advantage. All spin aside – a majority is a majority, although the targeting advantage of digital advertising may offer an insight into why Moffatt is so confident in Romney’s strategy.
Despite their strategic differences, the 2012 playbook doesn’t seem to deviate much in content. Consider the following three illustrations: one from a U.K. campaign in 1929, and one recent tweet from both Romney and Obama. On some level, both candidates are running content that is uninspired, unoriginal and could have been run 100 years ago.
I’m running for president because I know my vision will help strengthen the middle class & restore America’s promise
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) August 30, 2012
President Obama in Toledo: “They call it Obamacare. It’s true—I care. The other side’s plan is the Romney Doesn’t Care plan.”
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 3, 2012
Is political social media effective?
The Pew Internet and American Life Project ran a poll (just released, but data is from January/February 2012) discussing the importance of political social media. They report that self-identified Democrats place more importance on political social media than Republicans. Independents place less importance on social media than people identifying with either of the political parties. This seems to indicate that political social media is most effective to incite a constituent base rather than to influence undecided voters.
Looking at social media with the goal of mobilizing a base, one wonders if the political advertisements disguised as social updates are as targeted as they could be?
Is there “parity” between Romney and Obama in digital?
In the Mashable piece, Moffatt says: “I think the Obama team is very talented; I just think we’re at parity.” That’s probably the most honest assessment that I’ve seen comparing the two campaigns. Obama has larger earned media channels. Romney is spending more on digital advertising. If all resources were equal, both campaigns would probably accomplish about the same thing.
That said, all resources aren’t equal. As data-driven as writers would have us believe that these campaigns are, there is so much advertising to a comparative few (undecided voters in swing states like ahem, Ohio) that it’s nearly impossible to vet the effectiveness of a lot of these strategies on their own merits. None of this happens in a vacuum, and the “engagement” metrics of social media channels are noisy; possibly more of a pulse than a pacemaker.
Debates about political social media will continue on through the campaign season (and its post-mortem). What’s important is that the debate doesn’t deter us from the important national political issues that face us: whether Steve Perry played with Journey at their $500K concert at the Republican national convention and whether Betty White will speak at the Democratic national convention.