Vincent Harris: Facebook’s Permanent Place in Politics
By Vincent Harris
January 26, 2010
141, 544. That is the current number of Facebook supporters of Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown. What was a perceived advantage online for Democrats across the Country has vanished as Republicans begin to “get” the need to embrace social media as a powerful tool to raise name ID and mobilize supporters. The campaigns of Scott Brown and Bob McDonnell prove that Facebook is the best, and only real necessary tool (although one could argue Twitter) that every campaign should embrace online.
Facebook is free. I’ve seen campaigns and organizations across the country spend thousands of dollars building custom social-media platforms, or waste money paying a design artist to skin their Ning site (http://www.ning.com) to reflect their website’s look and feel. These costs are unnecessary. While Facebook may not be the shiniest coin, its functionality, and organic user base make its usage far more beneficial than spending time and money having to cultivate support on a unique platform.
A study in December of 2009 showed that 77% of Facebook fan pages have less than 1,000 fans. The best way to break through the initial 1,000 barrier is a two-fold strategy: e-mail, and micro-targeted ads. By sending out a social-media centered e-mail, campaigns can convert their e-mail subscribers into Facebook supporters. Regarding Facebook ads: they are arguably better and more effective than any other online advertising medium because ads are targeted to self-identified supporters of specific keywords.
Unlike Google where ads are targeted to search or content keywords on a specific site, Facebook ads allow you to identify and target people who are in 100% agreement with your values system, regardless of your ideology. Recently I ran a series of 2nd amendment ads across Northern Virginia (yes, there are gun supporters there). Using Facebook’s ability to geo-target cities in the region, and then micro-targeting supporters who self-identify as supporters of pages such as “Guns, Hunting, Deer Hunting, Skeet Shooting, NRA, Ammo, etc.,” I was able to deliver pro-gun ad copy specifically to the audience I wanted to reach without having to deliver the message in a more public forum as Google ads require. Facebook also provides automatically generated code for an easily embeddable widget which can be placed on a campaign’s website, or in blogs.
Using the “advertise something I have on Facebook” feature, Facebook lowers the barrier to becoming a fan of your politician to a simple click on the ad. Ads can also be used to link externally to a website or landing page. A fantastic idea to score kudos with constituents is to target them on their birthdays with a simple message: “Have a fantastic year and Happy Birthday from your Governor.”
Campaigns too often don’t take advantage of the ability to harvest e-mail addresses on Facebook. No, you don’t have to pay thousands to a developer to build an application. Using the website www.emailmeform.com or one similar, a campaign can embed a form into the FBML application and by a quick change of the wall settings, can ensure that every non-fan visiting the Facebook page will land on an e-mail signup. We harvested hundreds of e-mails addresses this way with Bob McDonnell’s campaign. Campaigns at every level should be utilizing this tool.
Building more complex applications on Facebook such as yard-signs, or fundraising tools are more complicated than the average political staffer could create, but are worth reaching out on pricing to your web developer. Especially if you have an active and engaged supporter base on Facebook.
With Bob McDonnell’s campaign, we made a decision early to make Facebook the primary social network of the campaign, and it worked. By election night we had more than double the amount of supporters as our Democratic opponent, and were well ahead of both statewide candidates in the more populous New Jersey Governor’s race. Yes, both Bob McDonnell and Scott Brown had the unique advantage of receiving national attention which was a big lure to Republicans across the country wanting to stay engaged with their campaigns, but without our consistent ad presence on the social network (we spent a little over $8,000), and constantly engaging our supporters through a series of Fan pushes, we would not have gotten there.
Campaigns are slowly waking up to the fact that a Facebook supporter is an avid fan: someone to cultivate, communicate with, and ask for help from. These are not merely names on a computer screen, but real people with real free time to make calls from home or knock on doors in the district.
Since Facebook has built their pages with a simple design template, there is not much a campaign can do to change the look and feel of the page except change the main picture in the upper left corner. Understanding this, the McDonnell campaign changed the main picture about once a week, always with a new graphic reflecting the theme or events of the week. When March Madness rolled around, we had a March Madness themed graphic, when we needed to reach a goal of 20,000 fans-we made one for that, and on and on.
If not over-used, supporter “pushes” are an incredibly effective way that a campaign’s Facebook fan base can be helpful online. By updating the status of the candidate, and changing the profile picture to reflect a numerical fan goal, you can engage your base directly and encourage them to invite their friends and family to become fans; thereby increasing the amount of people receiving your message. These “pushes” worked incredibly well on the McDonnell campaign, often doubling our number of supporters (5 to 10k, 10 to 20k) in a week’s time or less. Using a free service called Gabcast (www.GabCast.com), Bob McDonnell was able to communicate directly to his Facebook supporters by calling in via phone and recording an audio update which was easily embedded into a status update and could be played directly on our supporters’ newsfeeds. People listened when we posted these, and each update would receive hundreds to thousands of listens.
The McDonnell campaign engaged with its fans daily. By posting articles, videos, event schedules, or volunteer opportunities…we were constantly staying engaged. One of the best ways to increase interaction is to encourage supporters to simply “like” a status or event, as this takes a simple click, they’re much more likely to engage via this medium than leaving a comment. Concerning comments, politicians are beginning to understand that someone who comments on their Facebook page with a concern should be looked at the same way as someone sending a letter to their district office. In this cycle’s Vermont Governor’s race, the presumptive GOP nominee, Lt. Governor Brian Dubie, spends hours each week responding to comments himself, as himself, and has received a lot of positive interaction because of this.
The Brown and McDonnell campaigns both spent time and effort trying to emulate Barack Obama’s “myBarackObama” unique social network by creating their own versions(Brown Brigade, McDonnell Action). On Election Day McDonnell’s Action network had fewer than 2,500 members, with less than 200 actually engaging on the network daily. From glances at the Brown Brigade, the activity on there appears similarly bleak compared to Facebook.
The conclusion is that campaigns should try not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to social media. Fellow e-media entrepreneur David All has been preaching this for years, and is infamous for developing platforms that work with Facebook and Facebook Connect instead of spending resources trying to invent the “next Facebook.”
For now it seems there will be no “next Facebook” as its dominance atop America’s social media sites is secure. With more than 100 million monthly visitors in the U.S. and a recurring placement as the second most visited website, it is very much here to stay. While campaigns like Scott Brown and Bob McDonnell have the advantage of having monetary resources and national attention, Facebook is something that every campaign can and should effectively engage in.