Originally published in Campaigns & Elections
Campaigns are built to persuade and mobilize voters. When it comes to social media, though, far too often you’d have no idea that’s the case after looking at a campaign’s social channels.
It’s common now for campaigns to allow their press strategy to dictate their entire social content strategy. No strategic use for owned social is envisioned beyond what creates earned media or simply gets the attention of journalists and political insiders.
Now, there’s a place for crafting social content strategies aimed at influencers and reporters. But the true value of social media comes from its ability to create authentic, two-way communication with voters.
The truth is that what might lead Playbook, Axios AM, or Punchbowl isn’t what engages voters. Nobody, aside from reporters, political insiders, activists, and the most dedicated Twitter users, cares that you landed the best clapback on the topic of the day.
There’s nothing wrong of course with commenting on the story of the day and inserting yourself in the news cycle. But as Austin Dean, digital advisor at the DSCC, once noted, “spending considerable amounts of time and resources to engage with reporters vs. investing and engaging with voters is malpractice.” The focus should always be on voters.
At my firm, we worked closely with Ohio-based strategist Dennis Willard of Precision New Media on Rep. Tim Ryan’s 2020 congressional reelection campaign and his 2022 Senate campaign launch. He once told the story of how, as a cub reporter, he interviewed with the Akron Beacon Journal and the editor asked him who he had in mind as his reader when he wrote.
He told the truth: he thought about his mother. The editor, Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Oplinger, replied that when he was working on the paper’s winning series about an attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in the late 1980s, he and his team, each night before they filed their stories, asked themselves: “Would Doug’s mom read this?”
When it comes to the content we create on social media, that’s what it comes down to. Who are we talking to? Are we using it to communicate authentically to help people understand and take interest in the issues we’re talking about and how it relates to them? Or are we only talking to a small crew of Beltway insiders?
As political strategists and digital practitioners, we need to keep real people front and center in everything we do. Whether that means partnering with influencers and allowing them to adapt your message to their platforms or simply uplifting the voices of everyday people.
A key trend in digital is putting authenticity and accessibility front and center. Keeping real people in mind at every stage of the narrative. This means, discussing accomplishments in language that highlight what voters, not reporters, care about.
Real people don’t think about “appropriations” or how much money a member brings home to their district. What matters to them is the jobs created, the families helped. Talking about how leadership resulted in support for communities that feel neglected or left behind.
While Democrats and Republicans might bicker over the definition of infrastructure in the media, the argument couldn’t be less relevant to most people. Voters don’t sit around the table and talk about needing to invest in “infrastructure.” But they care about roads, bridges, buildings, internet speeds, and yes — child care. They think about the jobs the projects will create and the improvement in quality of life.
Keeping real people in mind doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the topics of the day. There’s a place for staying on top of breaking news and working in concert with comms pitches for earned media. But creating an authentic social content strategy that attracts voters and supporters in your district means meeting real people with messaging about the issues they care about.