Let’s start with what’s not happening in political social media in 2023. Chatbots aren’t taking your job anytime soon, and they’re not taking over, period. We’re not Metaversing as a species just yet, but Facebook’s also not evaporating as a social network. Twitter under Elon Musk remains one tantrum away from destruction at all times, but the platform’s overall traffic hasn’t dropped as much as boycotters might have hoped.
Still, problems at the big tech platforms naturally create new opportunities for others. When Twitter started “replatforming” previously banned accounts under Musk, users on the political left abandoned it in numbers for alternatives like Mastodon.
As a result, social media consultant and trainer Beth Becker has recently seen opportunities for Mastodon-based campaigns in her work with advocacy clients. Meanwhile, Twitter’s decision to allow paid political tweets may reflect a concern for free speech, but a cynic might also note the recent declines in brand advertising on Twitter and wonder if economics played a role.
Why not just walk away? A future without ID-verification, opaque content-flagging practices and paid blue-checks may appeal to some in the political world. But at least for now, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and their ilk play host to too many potential voters, donors and advocates to ignore, and discussion on their platforms helps set the terms of the public debate. For all these companies’ faults, we’re stuck with them.
Paying for the Privilege
Despite our non-stop griping about Facebook, political professionals are still paying to dangle content in front of all those voters ripening on the vine before Election Day. The question is how to find the right ones. Between Apple’s iOS privacy changes and Facebook’s own limits on targeting voter demographics and interests, reaching the specific Facebook audiences — donors as well as voters — seems much harder than it did even a couple of years ago.
Sometimes zip-code targeting will do the job well enough for name-recognition creative — perhaps cross-cut with basic age/gender parameters. But a common solution is to buy voter data or export it from a tool like the VAN and use it to target Facebook users individually. Voter-file spreadsheets tend to have low match rates when they go into the system, though, so some data vendors sell Facebook custom audiences pre-matched with the voter file. These are usually loaded directly through a Facebook ad account rather than uploaded as a document.
Pushing the boundaries a bit, longtime social-media expert Alan Rosenblatt pointed out to me that a tracking pixel in a programmatic ad unit can build a Facebook audience over time based on the parameters set up in the programmatic campaign. And of course, any custom audience, including an organization’s own donor list, can serve as the basis for lookalike audiences.
If you’re using voter-file targeting, do try to find some way to avoid the problem I suspect political Facebook advertisers have often faced in the past, which is that all of us have been pounding the small fraction of the voter file that the platform can match. If your mobile number or email address is readily available to campaigns, you’ll probably be seeing political ads. If not, you might just escape…
Unless, of course, the campaign is paying for influencers to reach you through friends, family and fans. Kardashians not necessary! Vendors are beginning to put together influencer lists granular enough to be accessible and effective for local candidates and advocacy campaigns, but you can do the basic organizing on your own. Becker has been working with two college-town mayoral campaigns this year that have both hired student social-media influencers to spread the word on local campuses, for example.
While some influencers are in it for the money, far more will engage with the political world without expecting a buck in return. At the high levels of messaging and public opinion, Rosenblatt contends that interlocking networks of content-creators and distributors can have a measurable effect what the public thinks and feels. Then there’s the story of Joe Biden’s TikTok.
Back in 2020, Biden didn’t have an official presence on the short-video site, but his “second most viewed video platform was TikTok.” The secret? A comprehensive effort to recruit TikTok users to distribute pro-Biden content from their own accounts.
Naturally, most down-ballot campaigns won’t be recruiting hundreds or thousands of influencers — if you’re running for state legislature, a handful of friendly voices is a more likely haul. But in a media environment flooded with political content, a trusted voice may reach a voter who’s tuning out the cacophony.
Likewise, campaigns of any size can organize volunteers to share content on their behalf. I’ve been talking up the value of “share squads” organized via email, DM or Facebook groups for years, since they provide a relatively easy way to help volunteers become campaign ambassadors within their own social circles. Campaigns can also include “share asks” in their general email streams, letting supporters lend a hand without having to hand over a dollar. Emails can include one-click share links for individual pieces of content, or they can point to an option-filled landing page like this recent example from NARAL.
Getting down to the real nitty-gritty of organic outreach, Becker is emphasizing Facebook Stories over other content types in her work this year, since Stories seem to have extra juice right now. Similarly, she’s encouraging clients to use still images on Instagram, reflecting the platform’s recent about-face away from video.
In the end, the content always interacts with the strategy. Particularly down-ballot, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok may be a campaign’s most-consistent forms of communication with supporters, volunteers and donors. Feature them! Get people fired up, get them on camera and get the images and video out where others can see how excited they are.
Content is rarely contagious, but enthusiasm often is and social media excels at conveying it.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the 2022 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a veteran of more than twenty-five years in digital politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.