The recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina hailed itself as the “most open and accessible convention in history - reaching more Americans than ever before through a diverse set of social media platforms.”
And it’s true – the DNC could be found on a dizzying array of social media platforms- flickr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google +, Foursquare, Pinterest, and Instagram. A DNC mobile app helped delegates and media navigate the convention and surrounding Charlotte (though there was no platform for blackberry, so I couldn’t use it). There was also a website with an interactive delegate map, and a livestream of the speeches every night.
At least in terms of social media presence, the Obama campaign is winning the race. This was reflected at the conventions as well– the Republican National Convention in Tampa (where they headquartered a social media “Command Center,”) received over four million tweets during the entire convention. By comparison, the DNC got over 5 million tweets by the second day.
But is the Obama campaign truly engaging their base through digital media? A recent Pew study shows that neither campaign is really using the ‘social aspect’ of social media. During the two week course of the study, the 404 Obama twitter campaign only retweeted 3% of citizen posts. (During this same period, the Romney campaign retweeted a citizen post once: and that citizen was Romney’s own son).
Jim McBride is the founder of Network for Progress, a website that seeks to build online and offline communities for “social and media-savvy grassroots organization.” He attended the DNC and saw many missed opportunities for sharing some of the content that was coming out of the convention halls. For example, he said, by 11am the morning after Michelle Obama’s speech, although the video was posted to the official Obama YouTube channel, he had yet to see the video link shared through their Facebook or Twitter feeds.
“There’s a lot of things where you can leverage social media to get out information, and they’re kind of settling for the donation ask email or some other piece of content like a picture, but the real power was that video.” He sites the President’s recent appearance on Reddit as another example.
“Just because you’re on Reddit doesn’t mean that you fully maximize the potential of those kind of platforms.” McBride says. “There’s so much to it that goes beyond just having a presence. Like making sure that if you have good content you’re sharing it.”
Another aspect that marred the accessibility of the DNC was wireless problems. Despite massive preparations to expand Wifi hotspot coverage by sponsor Time Warner Cable, many journalists complained that wireless access proved difficult if not impossible at many locations. Downstairs in the cavernous media basement major news networks were sectioned off behind a labyrinth of blue curtains, while the masses of ‘unassigned journalists’ and bloggers jockeyed for ethernet cords plugged into long tables in the back. Attempts to get online at a ‘specialty media lounge’ upstairs (sponsored by Microsoft!) proved unsuccessful.
McBride says the WiFi fail was a massive oversight- people who are not in the official media room couldn’t get online and share live.
“I was in a DNC Youth Council meeting,” he explains, “and Jill Biden showed up, and I have an older phone, so I tweeted a little bit about the event but I feel like I wasn’t able to engage as well as if I had my laptop going.”
McBride started a Generation Obama chapter in the DC Metro area in 2007; it’s what became the launching pad for Network for Progress. He says that as the establishment gets more involved with the Obama digital campaign, many of the digital grassroots organizing tools that were starting to develop in 2008 are being underutilized this time around.
“Like empowering the volunteers to become leaders beyond ‘phone bank captain.’” for example, he says, or “hosting a meet up, or creating a social media team that that works together to get out a message online within the local community.”
Building a strong grassroots political base on a local level means being dynamic, McBride suggests, and the Obama campaign could get creative, by getting in to other areas of media, like art.
“The Shepard Fairey picture of Obama was something that was totally grassroots-inspired. And now it’s iconic, and it helps elevate Obama beyond being a politician. He’s a media icon.”
Check out McBride’s tips for effective digital grassroots campaigning.
Tips From Jim McBride for Digital Political Grassroots Organizing:
1. Use Facebook groups:
“One great thing about Facebook groups verses fan pages is that whenever I post something, it gets to everybody in the group, immediately. So that’s almost like another listserve and it’s not something that you have browse a newsfeed to get updates on.”
“One thing I try to do is connect the dots from raising awareness and liking a page to signing up to get an email, and then signing up to knock on doors. Guiding people through the entire process is important, to getting them to do more and more direct action.”
3. Make your events networky
“I went to a DNC watch party at the convention center, but it was just a bunch of chairs lined up in a room with a big TV. And I’m like: well that’s not really a party. But I had to RSVP for it. When I have an event, I have nametags. I have a place where people can mingle, I have food, drinks, a check-in at the door, maybe stickers, whatever.”
4. And share them with constituents
“One thing that is underutilized in the [Democratic] party is ‘let’s show people what these events are like’– let’s use video to give people a taste of what it’s like to be there…because then they are more likely to want to be involved somehow.”
5. Move beyond “the ask”
“If you have a 13 million-person email list don’t just ask them to donate, because those are 13 million voters that you need to be getting the message out to. I think money can be a very tangible statistic but the end result should be talking to people and changing minds.”