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Tweeting your way into elected office

This story was reported for the San Diego News Network on June 1, 2010.

See original copy of story.

Forget knocking on doors, hanging signs and mass phone-banking, if you’re not Tweeting your campaign message or friending your constituents on Facebook, you may be S-O-L.

In other words: If you’re considering a run for office, consider your “net-roots” first. At least, that’s what experts say.

“There is a huge potential to gain support if a campaign mobilizes the ‘net-roots,’” said Bryce Cullinane, deputy director of The Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. “All campaigns need to invest in engaging people online.”

It’s the first major election year since then-Sen. Barack Obama leveraged the power of social media to score his way into The White House. Now, experts say if you’re a serious candidate — you must do the same. In fact, the only races that shouldn’t are candidates who are certain the majority of their constituents aren’t keen on social media.

According to a study conducted by the consulting firm Deloitte, politicians embracing social media is comparable to the days when Woodrow Wilson first used direct-mail marketing, Herbert Hoover first appeared on radio networks and Dwight Eisenhower promoted his presidential candidacy on television.

But of course, as the study noted, social media ascended in the political world in 2008 when Obama hired Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

“As Barack Obama’s victory shows, his early popularity on sites such as MySpace and Facebook was no passing fad,” stated the study. “These sites provided dramatic early signals that Obama’s candidacy had caught on with young people at a time when no one gave him a chance of winning the Democratic primary, let alone the presidency. While Obama’s message and appeal had a unique resonance, anyone with an idea or a product to sell should take note — social networks have become an accepted and required part of the marketing mix.”

Cullinane — who organized the Politics Online Conference this year, a conference that teaches politicos how to use the Internet in the most efficient manner — reiterated the important of social media.

The deputy director said social media is the “new way to engage people.”

Culliane’s claim rings true with two local campaigns.

Reaching out to voters

Erin Emblem, the manager for the Tracy Emblem for Congress campaign and daughter of the candidate, said they use social media regularly.

“The general acceptance of technology like smart phones and various social media websites in our daily life makes this a very effective and inexpensive way to reach a lot of people, quick,” she said.

In fact, Erin said the campaign has been so effective in utilizing social media that they now have volunteers in 25 states phone-banking for the candidate.

“Mainstream social media lets you know which groups or people are interested in receiving your cyber friendship or tweets, so you get an idea of where you stand,” she said. “We can reach out to voters and potential volunteers from virtually anywhere at a moment’s notice in an interactive way whether by sending tweets, personal messages, launching a video or releasing a pod cast.”

Another local campaign that’s utilizing social media to gain supporters is the Jay LaSuer for Sheriff campaign. Lori LaSuer, the candidate’s daughter and campaign manager, said their team researched mass communication efforts when he first announced his candidacy roughly 21 months ago. Jay also consulted with other politicos and business people already knowledgeable about social media websites, said Lori.

Now, Jay has the Facebook application on his Blackberry and has two Facebook pages: a personal page and a fan page. His personal page has more than 5,000 friends and his fan page has about 250 fans. Lori said his Facebook is linked to other social media websites like Twitter, 912, Plaxo — which are all then linked to his campaign website.

“His grandson has yet to learn Twitter, but he [Jay] is an expert,” joked Lori.

San Diego:

A new Facebook application called Campaign Flare would allow donors to give donations in one click rather than campaign managers redirecting them to their websites and then to the secured-donation site.

She added that social media has become more than just a way to score voters. She said her father communicates with constituents through the outlets, and has even gained volunteers.

“He’ll post an event or write that he needs volunteers and as soon as he posts it, he will get a ‘gillion’ comments or personal messages,” she said. “He’s able to reach such a huge diversity of people and being able to hear what they have to say is important to him.”

The next level

Virginia-based company Blue-Saki is attempting to take it to the next level with campaigns and Facebook.

About three weeks ago, the company launched an application called Campaign Flare (see photo) that would allow campaigns to take in donations directly on Facebook. According to Blue-Saki partner Aman Latif, this would allow donors to give donations in one click rather than campaign managers redirecting them to their websites and then to the secured-donation site.

“We all recognize the viral aspect of Facebook and we wanted to be a part of that,” Latif said. “We also realize Facebook is a community for people to interact and Campaign Flare allows people to interact as they donate.”

Latif wouldn’t say how many candidates have signed up to utilize the application since it first launched but he’s confident it will slowly become a hit as the general election approaches. He also wouldn’t comment on the percentage the company takes from donations.

Erin said she would consider it for the Tracy Emblem for Congress campaign.

“Checking out the new app is definitely on my to-do list,” she said. “We’re always interested in learning new ways to connect with voters and supporters.”

Not everyone is a true Tweep

Despite the success stories, Cullinane pointed out that social media isn’t for every campaign and that others have yet to use it appropriately.

For one, Cullinane noted that some districts have a large amount of constituents who just don’t Tweet or Digg. If that’s the case, then it wouldn’t be necessary for candidates to join the bandwagon but it’s up to the candidates to figure that out.

He also noted that some campaigns don’t Facebook correctly. That’s right, it takes more than just updating your status when you’ve just received an endorsement.

“Campaigns that are invested in new mediums are investing in constant interactions though Facebook and Twitter, are having firms develop apps for them, are investing in complex functionality for their websites, and are taking advantage of new media to mobilize small dollar donors, word of mouth marketing and volunteers,” he said. “Other campaigns are throwing up social media tools so they can say that they have them, but are not actually engaging anyone through them.”

Despite the varying approaches to the new approaches of campaigning, Cullinane said money and time is still required to effectively friend a constituent on Facebook. He means that it “requires a lot of money in development” of effective applications and outreach.

“Online engagement is a new way to reach people, and when it comes to reaching certain audiences, it has definitely made the process more efficient, but no less time consuming and costly.”

P.S. Please don’t forget to Tweet, Like, Digg and Y! Buzz this story.

Hoa Quach is the political editor for the San Diego News Network.