It’s been about a decade since the birth of social media. Those initial days are almost unimaginable now—once platforms that my kids were using to communicate with their college friends have now become sources I use to stay connected with extended family or see photos of my daughter cheering at the latest Vanderbilt game. However, the evolution of social media is not defined by functionality, but the power it has to help us create meaningful relationships with one another.
If there was ever a doubt in the power of social media, the 2008 presidential campaign challenged all uncertainty. For a little known Senator named Barack Obama, social media forever changed the political campaigning landscape. During his run for office, Obama generated nearly five million supporters, across 15 social media channels, to create grassroots campaigns, raise funding and fight smear campaigns from the opposition. Much like his predecessors—Jefferson (newspapers), F.D.R. (radio), J.F.K. (television)—Obama capitalized on an emerging technology to drive more than just awareness, but to create a movement.
The 2016 presidential candidates are taking note of President Obama’s tactics, and some political analysts are arguing that this campaign season may be the first to be determined online. Did you watch Jeb Bush announce his 'Right to Rise' campaign via Instagram? Were you one of the millions of people tagging your tweet with #FeelTheBern? How often have you cringed reading the Twitter debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that pop up in your news feed?
It’s no trend. Candidates are campaigning where voters are having conversations - something I don’t think experts could’ve even predicted a decade ago would happen. But while having these conversations online may have worked for President Obama’s first-term campaign, I don’t believe solely using those tactics will work for today’s candidates. We’ve moved beyond just the quantity of channels candidates are having conversations in and the number of voters they’re reaching. This season began to focus more on the quality of these conversations and the relationships between candidates and voters, but there’s still room for improvement.
You might think that the exponential amount of data produced by social media is a blessing, but to most, it’s an absolute nightmare. If we think about this in a traditional business sense, yes, social media gives businesses a lot of insight about a customer—what they like, how they think, where they’re going. But is the data actually good? Is the information we’re seeing about a person on Twitter the same as what we see on Instagram? Is it the same on Linkedin? Probably not. The persona a user takes on Linkedin is likely professional and job-related, however, their Instagram profile may be dedicated to their personal life, while their Twitter profile may be used to share and gather information. It’s impossible to have a truly complete view of someone through one singular channel or to understand their relationships by assessing just one aspect of their life.
Data quality has been a pain point for many businesses, but the same should hold true for political campaigns. It’s crucial that information about a potential voter is the same across different platforms, and that one can visualize any differentiation between these views. Let me give an example: A recent college graduate posts in an online political forum their concerns around student loans. They inquire more information about the candidate’s position on this. Naturally, the candidate responds and highlights their plans to address these challenges for millions of young Americans.
However, what the candidate couldn’t see was that the graduate was recently seeking new jobs on Linkedin (soon after the startup they were working for went under). In this instance, the candidate answered the graduate’s question, but it wasn’t the quality of answer that they could’ve given. If they had been able to see a cohesive view of the graduate between two very different social platforms, they could’ve offered information around unemployment and plans to expand the workforce.
As voters generate more and more information about themselves online, the spatial component within that data can offer insight into a potential voter’s offline behavior. Ask yourself: What if candidates knew more about potential voters than just where they lived? What if they were able to visualize how close voters were to a polling center? What if they knew which routes that voter may be most likely to take to get to the polling center on election day?
If voters shared this type of spatial data, making intelligent, location-based decisions from that data could be a game changer for how candidates market to potential voters. With this type of knowledge, candidates could offer transportation to faraway polling centers to ensure that every vote truly counts. Political advertisements could be easily seen from the road the voters travel on their way to the polls. Candidates could send electronic invites to potential voters for speaking events within their area—creating an engaging experience that moved a conversation online to in-person. Gone would be the days of subscribed, one-way interactions. Engaged interactions would become the norm.
The 2008 campaign season only broke the surface--it opened people’s eyes to the possibilities and impact social media can have on the campaign process. The 2016 campaign season made social campaigning even more mainstream, and a commonplace for voters to get information. As presidential candidates Clinton and Trump make their way into the home stretch, the winner will be determined by who better connects with voters. With better data, these candidates will have better conversations with voters—and those conversations, that citizen voice, is what our country is founded on.