Social media swings tight Mass. Senate race

Web 2.0 technologies galvanized Scott Brown's supporters and swept him to an upset victory

On his way to an upset political victory in Massachusetts, Senator-elect Scott Brown skillfully used social media to give his candidacy legitimacy and to make his supporters feel personally connected to his campaign, several social media experts said today.

Government organizations at all levels can apply the lessons learned from Brown’s campaign when implementing social media programs, the experts said.

Brown, a Republican state senator, drew 52 percent of the total votes while his Democratic opponent, Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, received 47 percent.

In the social media arena, Brown’s victory was even more decisive. Brown received 10.6 times more Facebook fan-page interactions and views of uploaded videos on YouTube than Coakley, according to a study performed by the Emerging Media Research Council and published by the Wall Street Journal.

Social media outreach increased Brown’s name recognition among likely voters, according to the study. In November 2009, 51 percent had heard of Brown; by January 2010 his name recognition was up to 95 percent.

Brown scored 578,271 YouTube video views to Coakley’s 51,173, according to the study. And, Brown had 70,800 Facebook fans compared to 13,529 for Coakley.

Brown’s dominance with social media was critical in generating enthusiasm among his supporters, according to Jeff Gulati, a social-media expert and associate professor of government at Bentley University in Massachusetts. Brown’s candidacy likely would not have been successful if he had relied solely on traditional media, Gulati said.

“Social media was a way for him to communicate with his supporters because you generally do not use this to persuade people,” Gulati said. “These are people that have opted in; they are predisposed to like him. So when you have this long-shot bid it helps demonstrate this is a serious and legitimate campaign.”

Federal government agencies can learn from Brown’s use of social media, Gulati said. Communicating regularly, and in a personal way, as Brown did, can help create an effective relationship with the public, he said.

Another lesson learned from Brown’s campaign is increasingly people use social media as their main source for news, according to Paul Levinson, a new media professor at Fordham University and author of the book New New Media.

“People under 30 years old—and increasingly people under 50—are turning to new media to get a lot of their news,” Levinson said. “Obviously it is not the only factor, but any candidate that has a 10-to-1 edge over an opponent on YouTube, is in a very formidable position in the election.”

Any organization should pay attention to the results of the election, he said. It shows that traditional media still has a role, but television, print and billboards are not enough to reach many people.

“And anytime a new mobile device comes out that makes it easier to get on the Web, that just feeds social media even more,” he said. “If you are a government agency and you want to reach the public, you have to do it with the frequency social media offers, and it has to be done by live, intelligent people. The old press release is not enough anymore.”

Even though political campaigns and the work of government are not identical, they both stress citizen engagement, according to Steve Ressler, the founder of GovLoop, a social media platform for government.

But just like political candidates, government agencies should not use social media just because they can, Ressler said. A candidate wouldn’t knock on peoples’ doors if he didn’t have anything to tell them. In the same way, agencies need to have a clear message that they want to share.

“It is not how many doors you knock on if the content isn’t good and if the candidate has nothing to say,” Ressler said. “If you can’t have a real conversation with the people and engage them, then knocking on doors is pointless. I think the same is true with social media; it is about engagement and real conversations and building real relationships.” 

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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