There’s no doubt that in the political campaign world, Facebook is the Bright Shiny Thing everyone’s got their eyes on, especially since a first-term Senator from Illinois won the presidency last year. But all this activity triggers a question that doesn’t have an easy answer: How many campaigns are actually using Facebook effectively, and how many are just wasting their time?
Case Study: The Race to Get Lots of “Friends” and “Fans” on Facebook. If you’re on Facebook for more than 5 minutes, you know how easy it is to passively express affinity for anyone, or anything. Maybe you see a friend has become a “fan” of (Not Being on Fire, ESPN, Flipping the Pillow Over To Get To The Cool Side, Batman, some cool local blog, and so on) and within a couple of clicks of the mouse, you join the bandwagon. It’s fun, and it’s a social “me-too” function that’s an integral part of Facebook.
After Barack Obama’s much-publicized efforts to collect Facebook friends, politicians and their advisors have jumped on this. Now it’s common to see candidates for office engage in a “friend recruitment war,” sending out repeated pleas to their supporters to “get more friends” for them, and to hit some magic target. As this desperate struggle for “more friends” continues, politicians risk looking less like capable leaders in difficult times, and more like insecure teenagers running for Homecoming King or Queen instead.
More importantly , these drives to “get more friends and fans” on Facebook miss the potential power of social networking for campaigns as a field organizing tool, not a popularity contest. Obama’s efforts on Facebook were part of a larger effort that combined field work – on and off Facebook – and took advantage of the medium’s novelty. Today, when Facebook is larger and more established, it’s much less important if politician has thousands of “fans” on Facebook. That’s particularly true if none of them do anything offline to help out the campaign effort.
However, if a campaign only has a few hundred “fans,” with every one of those fans knocking on doors in their hometown, raising money, and telling their friends – on and offline – about the campaign, the candidate will be doing a lot better where it really counts – at the polls on Election Day.
If political consultants want to help their clients the most with social media, they need to look at social networking not as a gimmick, bolted on to a traditional campaign plan, but instead as an extension of their field plan, just done online.
Using Facebook (and Twitter and other social networking sites) and their many tools to identify, recruit and organize supporters online, is great. Giving them something meaningful to do, will ensure that their campaigns are more successful than the insecure teenager begging for more friends.
UPDATE: In 2010, this article about how the number of Twitter followers does NOT equal influence did some hard research proving this point. Go read it now! Especially if you cover politicians who blab on about Twitter like they know what they’re doing.
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