If there is anything recent elections have proven, it’s that reaching out to voters online is not only important, it’s essential. The first notable use of social media to rally the voting community was during the 2008 Presidential election, when the Obama campaign took to the web to draw out the young vote. According to research by the Pew Foundation, 83 percent of 18-24 year-olds had social networking accounts in 2008, and two-thirds of those used those sites for political activity at that time.

Since then, the number of individuals using social media has swelled, and growing with it is the amount of people who use such venues to publicize their political views. From tweets and Facebook updates to YouTube videos and petitions, social media has become a power tool not only for official campaign teams but also for supporters.

To better understand how political campaigns are affected by social media, we spoke to some key players with experience in this realm. Sherri Greenberg is the Director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research produced a 2012 study examining the influence of social media on Congressional campaigns.

David Cascino is the founder of “Thunderclap”, a platform that allows social media users to recruit followers to join campaigns — to amplify a single message to each of their followers at once. Finally, we also heard from former Tampa Bay, Florida, City Councilman and State Representative Rick Kriseman. Here’s what they had to say.

Don’t Sell Yourself

Don't Sell Yourself

The hallmark of a healthy democracy is the participation in government of its citizens. Some would argue that social media has improved the state of our democracy, by providing a platform through which people can communicate about, and with, the members of our government. But since this media places all individuals on a level playing field, authenticity and genuine conversation have become paramount.

“Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the way campaigns are run and how elected officials govern. It allows candidates and officeholders to not only communicate more effectively to a larger audience, but it creates a two-way street for constituents to respond and interact with leaders,” Rep. Kriseman says. “This dynamic exchange of information and ideas makes for a healthier and more participative democracy.”

Due to this free flow of information, Greenberg says maintaining an honest voice is perhaps even more important than in traditional media campaigns. Whereas seeing a candidate on TV creates distance between the viewer and the subject, reading messages in one’s Twitter or Facebook stream, nestled amongst posts from friends and colleagues, creates a level of intimacy that is distinct from other media.

In 2010, the Obama campaign used Cascino’s Thunderclap application three separate times, leveraging its influence to lead thousands of followers to join the campaign. In each of these instances, social media followers would opt-in to support the campaign on Twitter. At a predetermined time, the campaign would send an identical tweet from every individual account that signed on. That way, a single tweet was amplified across thousands of users, broadcasting to each of their followers.

“It was really authentic, it wasn’t ‘Go Obama!’, it was about the importance of people participating in government,” Cascino says. “For any campaign, the key is really having an authentic message that’s not overly self-promotional. It has to be about what people care about.”

Don’t Forget the Other Media

Crowds

Though social media has certainly changed the face of political campaigns, it has not replaced other traditional forms of communication. “It’s additive,” says Greenberg. What she means is that having a social media campaign does not mean politicians can forego television and radio commercials. Greenberg also emphasizes that in-person rallies and town halls are an essential component of campaigns and that these venues won’t go away just because people spend more time online.

That said, the issue of money often poses problems for smaller campaigns or new candidates running against incumbents. Sometimes those new to the scene cannot raise the funds necessary to produce and run expensive television ads. “If you don’t have the money to do TV and you’re in a major TV market, and you simply can’t raise the money,” Greenberg says, “what you can do is YouTube.”

When a candidate is unable to amass reach using traditional media, smart social media campaigns can make up lost ground. Using Thunderclap, for example, a politician could use other individuals with large social followings to share a YouTube video that serves as his or her campaign ad. “Getting key influencers, people who support them, to back their Thunderclap creates a social proof where it’s not just them promoting themselves,” Cascino says.

Politicians know that in-person support lends credibility to their campaigns. A packed town hall, for example, holds much more cache than a poorly-attended rally, and adds weight to that person’s clout. People may perceive that if a candidate can draw such large crowds, he or she must be worth following. The same holds true for social media, except online, it’s about more than having a lot of followers — it’s about getting them to amplify the campaign’s message as well.

[Image credit: Steven Depolo, Valerie Everett, James Cridland]