Critiquing the Effectiveness of Virtual and Social Media in Political Campaigns

The media fell in love with Barack Obama's virtual world outreach, from Second Life campaign offices to the (now) Presidential Twitter Account and a multi-million member Facebook fan page. As Americans head into the 2010 Midterm Elections, candidates and incumbents from both sides of the political aisle are making virtual outreach a priority.

But all is not well in the virtual campaign world. Hopes are running high that candidates in the United Kingdom's upcoming elections will make use of the same kind of game-changing technology that thrust Barack Obama into the White House. But as one major international newspaper reports, the outsized success of virtual political campaigning in the United States may not expand well to countries lacking America's unique electoral system.

The great vault into the future promised by virtual world campaigning and critiqued by this blog back in December may be progressing slower than social media's mavens like to think. Let's take a look.

Virtual Campaigns Hit a Structural Road Block

According to a recent article in last week's Economist, expectations that candidates and campaigns will flock into social media and virtual worlds may be a bit overblown, at least when it comes to Great Britain's upcoming Parliamentary elections. The competition between Prime Minister Gordon Brown's New Labour and David Cameron's Conservatives won't look much like Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the Economist argues, in part because virtual worlds lend themselves to the long and expensive campaign system of the United States.

The thought-provoking article, "New Media and the Election: Thus Far and No Farther," provides a few good points for advocates of expansive social media campaigns in elections (like this blog) to consider before looking for a worldwide expansion of campaigns into the Metaverse. From the article:

The ultimate goal of the parties’ online activities is to reduce the
barriers to entry for potential activists. Labour’s membersnet portal
makes campaigning easier by, for example, letting supporters download
contact databases so they can telephone-canvass voters from home.

For the more radical futurologists, this is the shape of politics to
come. But those working in the field are as conscious of technology’s
limits as of its potential. Traditional media, especially broadcasting,
remain much more important.

Episodes of WebCameron are among the
most-watched in the news and politics category of YouTube; his
appearance at a south London college this week attracted 15,000 views in
its first two days. But evening television news bulletins draw
millions—as will, it is hoped, the three televised debates between the
party leaders in the run-up to the election.

This raises a good point. For all the glitz and glamor of "New Media Specialists" and virtual world campaign headquarters distributing virtual t-shirts, more often than not the eyes of potential activists and voters are simply not on the virtual world. Television and radio are still by far the dominant force in political advertising, and the amount of set-up and publicity required to increase awareness about a candidate's virtual headquarters often outweighs the limited benefits.

As John Edwards' campaign center in Second Life shows, it's quite a bit harder than many think to keep an effective virtual world and new media presence. Beyond an initial surge brought on by curiosity, keeping eyes and minds engaged in the content of a campaign is a daunting task in any media outlet, especially a virtual world where actively engaging consumers and potential voters on a day-to-day basis is essential. For British campaigns, limited both in funds and in length, this may prove more headache than home run.

American political campaigns are vast both in terms of the time spent running them and the amount of resources they require for successful day-to-day management. This makes them also uniquely experimental among world campaigns, and the recent dabbling in virtual world Get Out the Vote efforts in 2008 and early 2010 appears more a product of curiosity than full-on endorsement. Campaigns are now more willing to use new media and virtual technology to reach voters, but it is still a long way from being a major focus of any national campaign.

Did Twitter and Social Media Really Play Kingmaker for the Obama Campaign?

The Guardian's argument that campaigns in Britain will be won based on "Blogs and Tweets" is both optimistic and ill-informed. If anything, the dim growth and viewing figures for political blogs linked to the Labour and Conservative parties will dissuade their financial arms from sinking more money into an experimental medium with – as has been seen from their previous experiences – admittedly limited potential to reach out to voters not already aware of the party's presence on Twitter and other social media outlets.

Developed nations with diverse electoral systems will find it difficult to adopt the virtual world and social media in the same way the United States has, in part because modern history has done much to exaggerate scale of the Obama campaign's new media approach. Looking at the Twitter analytics for President Obama's campaign account heading into early November 2008, we see around 220,000 friends. That's impressive, but it's also less than 30% of former TV funnyman Conan O'Brien's 700,000+ following – and O'Brien built his in two months, compared with two years for the Obama campaign.

In an otherwise interesting article about the evolution of new media in America's 2008 campaigns, NewsBlaze boasts that President Obama only spent around $8 million securing his momentous social media following on Facebook and Twitter. This averages out to somewhere around $10 – $20 per friend, Tweet follower, and LinkedIn networking buddy. This compares to over $230 million in television and radio broadcasting. The not-so-subtle point? Old media is expensive and outmoded. Social media can net you a load of readers for little up front investment.

All of this sounds like a good deal until one realizes the bulk of Obama's then-supporters came from Facebook and Twitter accounts overseas – campaign cash going towards non-voting eyes is, as any pollster will tell you, campaign cash wasted. By comparison, the $230 million in television advertising aired in prime voting media markets, not foreign countries. One has to question how effective a Twitter following with a substantial (albeit enthusiastic) overseas contingent would be in a scaled-down British Parliamentary race.

Social media proved very successful in providing free media coverage to the Obama campaign based on a mixture of novelty and sheer participatory numbers, but as a vote development tool its utility is questionable. It was also a product of the Obama campaign's swollen campaign coffers. Candidates in tightly-regulated races like those of Parliament won't have the huge war chests to spend on experimental campaigning, and with elections likely in May, won't have the timetable to properly develop them into publicity machines.

Once again it appears uncommon success in America has led to excessive and misguided hype as to the utility of new media and virtual world communication technology on a much broader scale. In order for virtual world technology to scale in a way that will be effective in politics, it will have to refine its delivery system and create clear new avenues of monetization. For the rest of the world, the hope of an Obama-like social media presence is still in the future.

3 thoughts on “Critiquing the Effectiveness of Virtual and Social Media in Political Campaigns”

  1. Hmm… I’m a little disappointed as you misreport on a couple of facts in this article.
    “For all the glitz and glamor of “New Media Specialists” and virtual world campaign headquarters distributing virtual t-shirts, more often than not the eyes of potential activists and voters are simply not on the virtual world.”
    I agree, however, the Economist article you reference doesn’t mention virtual worlds at all. The word “virtual” or the phrase “Second Life” doesn’t appear a single time. Yet you claim:
    “The competition between Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s New Labour and David Cameron’s Conservatives won’t look much like Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the Economist argues, in part because virtual worlds lend themselves to the long and expensive campaign system of the United States.”
    Your quote indicates that the Economist specifically mentions virtual worlds. It doesn’t.
    “Television and radio are still by far the dominant force in political advertising, and the amount of set-up and publicity required to increase awareness about a candidate’s virtual headquarters often outweighs the limited benefits.”
    To support this assertion, you mention John Edwards’ “Campaign HQ” in Second Life from 2008:
    “During the 2008 campaign, Edwards’ staff purchased land and a house in Second Life, filled it with free Edwards shirts and hats, and promptly left it to gather dust.”
    As reported at ZDNet here – the Second Life “campaign HQ” was a site done by a supporter of Edwards, *not* by “Edwards’ staff” as you claimed. (That made it all the more hilarious when Fox News picked up the story and ran a “ZOMG John Edwards is in Second Life … you know what else is in Second Life? SEX!” piece.)
    The remainder of your article focuses in on “how many fans did Obama really get?” Is this even the best metric to track? I think a much bigger and more relevant metrics is “How many tweets and facebook messages and links referencing Obama were there?” While I don’t have these numbers available, your argument that social networking didn’t necessarily make Obama’s election successful is *based* on the idea that *only* the followers are important.
    I’m sorry, Max, but this story requires fact-checking and additional research for me to be convinced.

  2. Ron,
    Very true that The Economist doesn’t mention virtual worlds – I was using their article on social media to also build a case that expands into virtual worlds given my own research and the research of others.
    Social media is definitely an emerging trend, and it’s receiving more than its fair share of hype, so it’s important to keep in mind the difficulty of monetization and moving people from passively joining a Facebook or Twitter following to actually campaigning for or funding a candidate.
    I don’t have data on how many Tweets or Facebook links Obama’s messages had – almost surely more than McCain by double, if other new media trends related to Obama are any guideline – but we do know that traditional media swamped new media in 2008, and that a fair amount of Obama’s supporters on FB/Twitter were and continue to be foreign nationals with no voting power.
    It’s an interesting thing, and I intend to do more research on it in the near future.

  3. Above all, I think this is *exactly* the right question to be asking. While I’m critical, at the same time I want to mention that social media evangelists take this as a given, and industry and marketing people are just scratching their heads hoping the social media gurus are right.

Comments are closed.