From Campaign & Elections Magazine:

The secret to a successful digital and social media campaign isn’t cultivating the biggest fan list or the most followers. A campaign can do more with 100 online zealots than with 1,000 passive Facebook fans.

That’s where engagement comes in. In 2012, smart campaigns will need to hire firms that know how to stir the emotions of their online followers and turn them into virtual ambassadors. Only campaigns that strategically and deftly employ new media can win next year and mishandling these all-important channels can mean losing digital supporters in droves.

To get your digital strategy on the right track for 2012, here are five commandments of digital political campaigning that your campaign must not break:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s media channels. Just because an opponent is posting a video series on YouTube, and drawing viewers, doesn’t mean it’s right for your campaign. Let’s say, for instance, job creation is one of the race’s top issues. Posting a video series touting your job creation plan online will likely fall on deaf ears. Why? Because the vast majority of online video consumers come from two groups: the wealthy and teenagers. Wealthy voters aren’t likely to be all that worried about jobs—compared to, say, someone in the unemployment line—and the bulk of the teenage demographic can’t vote.

The medium has to support the message for digital electioneering to work. If it doesn’t, you’ll wind up wasting money, or possibly turning off potential supporters.

Thou shalt not commit media channel adultery. When new clients come to me, I’m always interested to hear about how they approached digital media in previous campaigns. Nine times out of 10, the client recalls how he set up a Twitter account (inevitably incorporating an automated tweet program like HootSuite or TweetDeck), then built a custom Facebook page, and put someone in charge of it, then moved on to YouTube, then a blog, and so on.

This approach could not be more self-destructive. From inside the campaign, it may look efficient. But remember that the goal is to recruit support, and from the standpoint of potential voters it looks like nothing less than adultery.

Think about this. The bigwig in charge of digital media is no doubt involved in the creation of the Twitter account. Once it’s operational, the bigwig then hands it off to an underling and moves on to the next channel. Those following the channel through that transition will notice the shift in voice and feel abandoned. In a perfect world, your campaign’s social media profiles are created simultaneously and managed by someone who understands completely the voice of the campaign. That’s how to take full advantage of the interactive power of new media.

Thou shalt not lie (or be opaque). We’re not talking about bold-faced lies. What we’re talking about here is transparency. Transparency is one of the primary concerns of voters today, and one of the primary benefits that social and digital media offer campaigns. Unlike a TV spot, for example, a voter can respond immediately to the message using social media channels. Sometimes these comments are negative, but negative comments should not be viewed as a liability.

Your campaign needs to respond to negative comments in order to increase transparency. It must never bury or delete them. In fact, responding wisely to negative comments often leads not only to winning the voter back, but also creating a virtual ambassador who will promote your campaign to his or her friends. In a recent Harris Interactive study, 18 percent of respondents who posted negative comments on a campaign’s social media channels and received a thoughtful response turned into loyal supporters. Moreover, 33 percent wound up deleting their negative comment and replacing it with a positive one.

Thou shalt honor your supporters. One thing campaigns tend to forget is their digital manners. If you’re a politician and a voter takes the time to come up to you and express support, are you going to forget to say thank you? Of course you’re not. It should be no different online.

Have a system in place that allows your campaign to “thank” supporters for liking your Facebook page, for posting a positive comment or for sharing your message with a friend. All of the major social media platforms have notifications options that can alert you when such an action is taken by a supporter. If they retweet you, thank them.  If they like you on Facebook, thank them. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “We’re a big campaign with thousands of fans and retweets a day.” No problem. Many digital firms have the tools to automate the process for you.

Thou shalt engage. Just because you built it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. And just because they come, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay. There’s a technical side to engagement, and it’s called interactivity. Just as you should thank supporters and respond to comments, so should you always keep in the fore the true power of new media. Where traditional media (radio, TV and print) is declarative, digital and social media is interactive and conversational.

All too often I see campaigns taking what I call the “digital paper” approach—merely scanning a direct mail piece and posting it in an album on Facebook, or digitizing a TV spot and uploading it to YouTube. This approach is absurd. It puts a one-way message on a two-way channel. It’s like going to play football in a water polo uniform—it’s dangerous.

Messages for digital and social media campaigns have to be uniquely crafted not to talk to the voters, but to talk with them. Make sure your online content invites potential supporters to converse with you, and if they bite, make sure you have the stuff to keep the conversation going. This is the equivalent of handshaking today. To paraphrase Harry Truman, “If you can shake a hand, you can win a vote.”

About the author

Watch Street Consulting is a veteran-owned website design that empowers political campaigns, advocacy groups, and professional associations with powerful websites and compelling graphic design.