The following is an excerpt from the new ebook, “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014: A Comprehensive Guide to Online Politics for Campaigns & Advocates”, available in the Amazon store for the Kindle e-reader and as a PDFn Epolitics.com.
The explosion of Twitter marks one of the biggest changes in the digital political landscape in the last few years — in 2008, Barack Obama had all of 100,000 followers by Election Day, a number that was well above 20 million on Election Day 2012. Though the Twitter and Faceook are often lumped together in the popular mind, Twitter isn’t quite a mass medium in the same way Facebook has become — it’s more of a channel to reach those“influentials” like bloggers, journalists and activists. Also different: you can pretty much post as often as you want on Twitter, while you’ll probably want to limit yourself on Facebook to keep from burning out your audience.
An example of Twitter’s ability to influence the political discussion? In 2012, Obama and Romney campaign staff regularly engaged in “Twitter duels” online, with reporters and activists the intended audience. Though these back-and-forth exchanges probably didn’t change any votes, they got plenty of media attention — mission accomplished.
Functionally, Twitter is the very short equivalent of blogging, with a dash of social networking thrown in: individual Twitter messages (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters in length, and people generally have to choose to “follow” someone’s Twitter feed in order to see their updates. As with Facebook, essentially anyone or any organization can create a Twitter feed, but in some sense Twitter lacks the reciprocal nature of a true social network — plenty of feeds have thousands of followers but follow far fewer people in return themselves (do you think that Lady Gaga really pays attention to what you say?).
One important consideration — Twitter’s a useful tool for campaigns, but its real political power may lie in what campaigns CAN’T do on it, which is to dominate the conversation. Twitter is truly a democratic medium (with a small “d”), and content and opinions spread on Twitter often find their way onto blogs and cable news and into newspapers. Twitter helps create the sea of information in which modern campaigns swim, and whether or not they’re active on Twitter themselves, it’s likely to shape the political communications environment in which they operate.
What to Tweet?
A common perception of Twitter is that it’s an inherently trivial medium — it’s often spoken of as a way to tell the world what you had for breakfast. But in practice, normal people who fill Twitter’s “airwaves” with self-indulgent drivel generally don’t pick up much of a following (for celebrities, that’s unfortunately NOT so true). In fact, perhaps the most common single use of Twitter is to spread links to blog posts, videos, news articles and other pieces of in-depth content, making the 140-character limit less of an issue.
In general, as in so many other parts of the online advocacy space, readers aren’t likely to pay much attention to you unless you have something of value to offer them. People who tweet too much trivia too often can find their followers dropping off in droves, so be sure to pay attention to the KIND of information you distribute. Not every tweet needs to be a haiku-like gem of wisdom, but it rarely hurts to think for at least a minute or two about your ultimate communications goals before messaging the world. How often people Tweet varies immensely — I have friends who’ve sent out 10 or 20 times more messages over time than I have, for instance. It really depends on what you have to say.
Building a Following
Once you’ve established an initial base of content on Twitter, next start building your following. Unfortunately, short of being mentioned in the Twitter feed of someone famous, finding an audience typically takes time. Start by following the people you want to follow you — your staff, political activists in your state, district or area, local bloggers, journalists, etc., since at least some of them will follow you back right away. Once they do so, you have the opportunity to reach them — and potentially, their own audiences through them.
Supporters = Amabassadors
Of course, you’ll want as many of your supporters to follow you as well, particularly if their own following is large and/or active. So ask them! A “follow us on social media” email is a nice break from a string of fundraising asks, and your supporters may appreciate a chance to help the campaign without having to open their wallets.
@Replies and Hashtages: Engaging the Community and Connecting with Prominent Voices
The most effective way to build your following over time is to actively engage the Twitter community, a process that can take several forms. The most straightforward is to use an “@reply,” in which you reference another Twitterer in your own post (i.e., “@epolitics why don’t you just shut up about this crap”). You can use @replies to hold a back-and-forth conversation with someone, plus they’re a good way to get the attention of someone with whom you’d like to connect (Twitter.com and other Twitter-management tools — like Hootsuite — typically make it very easy to see who’s @replied you).
@replies also play a role in “retweeting,” which is the forwarding of someone else’s posts to your own followers. Retweets are one of the signature characteristics of the ongoing Twitter conversation, since they let people provide value to their readers without having to write new content themselves. Plus, retweeting someone more prominent than you can be a good way to come to his or her attention, particularly if you use the old-school “RT @reply” method rather than Twitter’s newer built-in retweet function (RT’ing a tweet as an @reply also lets you add a comment, another valuable feature).
Besides RT’s, the other common bit of Twitter shorthand you’ll commonly encounter is a “hashtag,” a word or abbreviation preceded by the “#” sign. Twitterers use hashtags to refer to a topic that’s being discussed by several people at once, for instance an issue, event or public figure, and people often use Twitter’s search function to follow the extended discussion around a particular tag. This tendency makes hashtags a valuable way to gain exposure to new followers and to find yourself retweeted, assuming of course that you have something interesting to say. Some websites attempt to keep track of common hashtags, but the easiest way to find the hashtags in general use is to use a Twitter search around a topic and look for the tags terms people are using when they talk about it.
Engaging the Twitter community is obviously time-consuming, since you have to pay attention to what many different people are saying — you can’t participate in the conversation unless you’re actually listening. Besides hashtags, dedicated Twitter-management tools like Hootsuite and TweetDeck let you break the feeds you’re following down into various groups, for instance based on topics they cover or the kind of author they are (hint: track relevant journalists), and they also tend to speed up the process of posting content vs. going through Twitter.com itself. A good tool will typically allow you to pre-schedule Tweets for publishing, something that’s particularly handy if you have content that needs to go out over the weekend or while you’re traveling.
Besides public conversations, you can also “Direct Message” someone behind the scenes if you are following each other reciprocally, and I’ve known people who’ve been able to connect with a blogger or reporter via DM whom they’d never been able to reach via email.
Twitter has given rise to an impressive array of different tactics and practices in its short time on Earth. “Live-Tweeting” an event involves covering it comprehensively as it happens, and social media-friendly conferences and seminars typically promote the use of certain hashtags to facilitate the process. Activists or groups can also pre-arrange TweetChats, which are public discussions at a particular time and around a particular hashtag. Many people pay attention to the hashtags that are “trending” on Twitter, i.e., becoming widely discussed, and the goal of a TweetChat or live-tweeting is often to either encourage a topic to trend or to ride the wave of a subject that’s moving up the popularity ladder. Finally, a Twitter interview can be an interesting way to run a one-on-one public conversation, though it practice it can feel like competitive poetry or a freestyle rap showdown — i.e., a public balancing act on a very narrow wire.
Twitter and Cell Phones
A common question about Twitter: why the 140-character limit? The answer is cell phones — Twitter is designed to be used like SMS text messages, making it one of the few online tools commonly and easily works on handheld devices. Some organizers have taken advantage of this fact to use Twitter to help rally communities in which cell phones are more common than access to the traditional internet. Others have used the Twitter/phone connection for on-the-spot coverage of rallies and other events, particularly as a means to distribute photos and videos shot with their phones. Finally, some campaigns in 2012 employed “protected” Twitter feeds — ones that can only be followed by people “approved” by the feed owner — to organize field staff and volunteers on the fly.
Advertising on Twitter
Warning: Ways to Stumble
The most important Twitter rule to remember? Don’t be an idiot, since something you post on Twitter will live forever, even if you try to delete it (just ask Anthony Weiner). Even if you’re smart enough not to send topless photos over the internet, a big mouth can still get you into trouble. As a friend of mine once said of a Democrat challenging Sen. Chuck Grassley, “as long as he has a Twitter feed, she has a chance.”
Another note of caution: electoral campaigns in particular need to be careful to distinguish between a candidate or officeholder’s Twitter feed and one updated by staff, since Twitter as a community tends to value authenticity. If Twitterers find out that a “candidate’s voice” is not actually his own, the campaign’s credibility can take a hit. Campaigns can use both approaches in a single feed if it’s clear whose voice is speaking at any given time, and can even turn a relatively rare candidate appearance on his or her own feed into an event to promote. Finally, don’t forget that once a campaign has a Twitter feed, people will expect to be able to follow it and interact with the author(s). Don’t start a feed and let it die of neglect.
For more from this chapter, please download your copy of “How to Use the Internet to Win in 2014″ today.