Remember the 80’s TV drama The Equalizer? In it, the protagonist, a world-weary former CIA operative recruited clients for his pro bono vigilante service through a newspaper ad: “Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer”. If the election last week of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary means anything, it looks like when it comes to political campaigns, social media might just be the new Equalizer.
Nenshi entered the race with the odds stacked against him and more than a few problems. He had little profile, little money, little mainstream media attention–a March Calgary Herald story looking at potential candidates mentioned his name dead last–and was up against a slate of mostly established candidates.
What he did have was imagination, and a creative and pragmatic team around him. Making a virtue out of necessity, Nenshi’s team leveraged existing social media platforms to created a buzz around his non-conventional candidacy. Over six months that buzz became a roar, as polls chronicled a remarkable rise from also-ran, to contender to winner.
But Nenshi is not the first to use social media in an election campaign (remember Obama), in fact his opponents also included social media in their communication tool kit. So why did his efforts translate into ballot box success when others such as Rocco Rossi in Toronto ( also running for mayor until he dropped out of the race two weeks ago) used social media aggressively but failed to create the same buzz?
Some have suggested that his biggest achievement might have been getting students and young people out to vote in much higher numbers. And a quick scan of election results suggests they may be right. With almost 54 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, turnout was the highest in nearly three decades and according to some, pointing to higher than normal participation of students and other groups who traditionally stay home on election day.
But it would be a mistake to reduce his campaign’s success to a simple question of social media use by young people. If that were the case why did the other campaigns fail to tap into that market?
A summary analysis of the social media platforms used in a number of other municipal political campaigns in Canada shows differing levels of technical and communications savvy. And while a few are just cobbled together, most appear to feature sound social media integration and use.
So, what what the difference?
While it may be too early to venture a definitive answer, I see a three key factors at play: integration, conversation and a fresh narrative.
The difference between a social media campaign that works and one that stumbles can probably best be summed up with one word: Respect.
In the social media context–in fact, in any social context–respect means being honest about who you are, why you’re there, caring about what others have to say and encouraging them to say it. As I’ve written before, phony doesn’t stand up well under the collective glare of an online community.
Nenshi’s social media efforts had a laser-like focus on encouraging conversations and using these to fuel online efforts. And these conversations were genuine, with the most immediate interactions (on Twitter) being directly with the candidate.
Respect is the first precondition to a meaningful online conversation. The second precondition is actually having something relevant and interesting to say. Too often, political social media sites are used to push talking points–safe, typically bland, and mostly self-serving.
While hardly revolutionary, Nenshi’s policies were fresh. His online content was original, interesting and humorous. It was the kind of content that not only catches your attention but makes you want to share it and in so doing, tap into the full power of social media.
The third pre-condition to a successful socia media campaign is recognizing that it is not a silver bullet. Social media campaigns have to be integrated within a larger offline effort. Successful campaigns leverage and synergize. Social media can facilitate those synergies–the Nenshi campaign got it.
Social media was used to inform and mobilize, but much like with the Obama campaign, online conversations were also used to empower and facilitate offline, water-cooler conversations. This created a powerful dynamic that drove traffic online in an ongoing and growing cycle.
So, what does this say about social media as a tool for political or community engagement and mobilization?
First, that social media campaigns will likely fail if not predicated on a genuine readiness to engage in conversations.
Two, social media platforms will not mask the lack of a narrative or fresh, relevant and interesting content, but will likely expose it.
Three, social media campaigns should be integrated with other offline efforts to create synergies.
Four, and most important, social media has the potential to take an idea, a cause or a campaign from the sidelines into the mainstream and transform an also-ran into a winner.