Some Thoughts On The Role of Social Media in the Sask NDP Leadership Race, Written on the Occasion of Twitter’s 7th Anniversary in 144 Chars

(Well, the title of this post is 144 characters anyhow.  The body of this thing will be *much* longer!)

Twitter is celebrating the seventh anniversary of the first tweet ever which means today is as good of time as any to look back at what role social media played in the recent Sask NDP Leadership campaign with a focus on what I know best, the campaign of Ryan Meili.

The analysis of what had happened and why began immediately after the race ended:

On Twitter, a user named Michael Couros tweeted this the day after the Leadership convention:

Least active on Twitter @cambroten Most active @ryanmeili Proving once again Twitter means shit in the real world #skpoli #skndpldr

…with the implication that social media hadn’t helped (and perhaps even hurt?) Ryan Meili’s campaign.  Because I’m a masochist, I also went back and listened to the John Gormley show from the Monday after convention and again, heard someone saying something similar: “If you watched Twitter and Facebook, you’d think it was going to be a landslide for Meili.  Yet he lost.”

(Side note: Michael Couros’ dismissal of Twitter is especially surprising if he’s any relation to noted advocate for technology-in-education, Alec Couros!)

Now I’m completely biased as both a Ryan Meili supporter and as someone who was responsible for overseeing much of the social media activity for his campaign.  But, with all due respect, if Couros and Gormley believe social media played no role or even somehow made Ryan lose the leadership race, I echo what one of our trolls said when I tell them “GTFO Connies!” (That’s a bit of an inside joke for our campaign!) 😉

Why is it wrong to dismiss the importance of social media in this or any campaign?

First off, comments like those above imply that we focused too heavily on social media at the expense of other more important activities.  But that’s clearly not true when you look at other metrics from the race.  Social media activity may have indicated a coming landslide to *people following the race on social media* but really, the metric that should’ve seemed to indicate a coming landslide much more clearly to *anyone* paying attention was fundraising.  Ryan ended up raising $136 000 to Cam’s $83,000 (and Trent came in second in fundraising with $103,000).  Yet the two candidates who broke six figures in fundraising ended up placing 2nd and 3rd.  Or you could look at who sold the most new memberships – again, that area was dominated by the Meili campaign from what I understand.  (Of course, this isn’t as good of an indicator of a campaign’s success as fundraising since new members are notoriously more difficult to get to vote than a party member who’s been around for 50 years and voted in all kinds of leadership races and other elections in that time.)

Another problem with this dismissal of social media is that it implies an either/or dichotomy that didn’t really exist.  To put it another way, anytime you place things in binary, you are doing a disservice to what you are talking about.  I would never say the Sask Party is completely evil and the NDP is completely perfect.  The same applies to social media – it is neither the downfall of an entire campaign nor its saviour – social media is just one part of the entire package – fundraising, policy development, outreach, communications, etc. etc. etc.  Meili may have been the campaign that was most focused on social media but I don’t think that came at the expense of any other area – again as our success in fundraising, selling new memberships, positive response to our policies and so on show.  In fact, I’d argue that we were *as dominant* in those other areas as we were in social media.

Contrary to what some may believe, perhaps the heavy social media focus of the Meili campaign actually helped more than it hurt?  Maybe it allowed us to reach younger, less political but more tech-savvy and a wider number of people than we may have otherwise?  In reality, perhaps our social media focus actually meant the race ended up being as tight as it was in the end and the margin of victory was only 44 votes instead of 144?

True, the (mostly accurate) perception about social media is a bunch of people just clicking “Like” and walking away.  Or tweeting something snarky and going on with their day.  I would argue that Ryan’s campaign recognized people do this so made very concerted efforts not to let potential supporters get away so easily.  We had a formal “Likes to Loves” program internally where our volunteers reached out to people who indicated their support on social media to encourage them to join the party, donate, volunteer or otherwise increase their engagement.

Our Facebook advertising strategy was similar – instead of just throwing money at Facebook and requesting ads show up for anybody who’d, for example, Liked the Sask NDP but not our candidate or who’d Liked an opponent but not our candidate, we had very strategic ideas of who we were targeting with our ads, a variety of ads which we analysed and tweaked based on which got the greatest response rates, and specific goals for how many Likes we were trying to achieve at different points in the campaign.   In hindsight, of course, I wish we’d been even more successful with the “Likes to Loves” program.  If we’d converted another 2% of Ryan’s 2500 Likes into new party members who voted, that would’ve been enough to turn the race.  (But everybody on Team Meili – whether they were on our social media team or not – probably did the same thing in hindsight after the final result was known – “if I only called 44 more people”, “if I only sold 44 more memberships”, “If I only had 44 more cousins!”)

Speaking of Facebook, advertising on that platform is, *by* far, the most cost-effective way to spend limited advertising dollars/resources to reach people compared to phoning, mailing and other more traditional contact methods.  It still can’t replace the connection of an in-person contact but there’s always going to be a trade-off between costs and impact – if there wasn’t, every candidate would make a personal visit to every member to explain their positions and answer any questions.  But obviously that doesn’t happen.

I’ll concede that social media still can’t win or lose a campaign by itself – at least not yet.  But social media also grows in importance with every year that goes by.  (I often check this by using the “Mom Test” as a measure of where we might reach general users as opposed to early adopters – is my mom on Facebook?  Yes.  Is my mom on Twitter?  No.  Is my mom comfortable using her credit card online?  Sort of.  And so on.)

As I said at the start of this post, Twitter is celebrating its seventh anniversary which means it was in its infancy in the 2009 race and all but non-existent during the 2007 provincial election.   Who knows what role social media tools of today (or ones that have yet to be invented!) will play in a couple years’ time?

That’s part of why the Meili campaign was so focused on social media – we weren’t just thinking about how to win the leadership race but, at the same time, we were also trying to lay the groundwork for winning other elections in the future.  A big part of this included learning and understanding the latest technologies – whether that was creating and releasing smartphone apps, livestreaming events, encouraging people to use SMS to let us know when they voted, experimenting with a variety of cutting-edge techniques and tools from Tout to Google Hangouts to the Reddit AMA we did.

There are numerous other reasons social media should be and is a growing and vital part of any modern political campaign…

  • This one is obvious but social media eliminates the usual limits of distance and time that usually restrict political campaigns.  Potential supporters anywhere in the province (and indeed the world) could Like Ryan’s page, follow him on Twitter, visit his web site and more.
  • Similarly, social media tools are often a lot more cost-effective – putting a promotional video on YouTube that can reach hundreds and even thousands of people costs no more than the time to produce it – plus again, can be viewed by anyone anytime.
  • Not every candidate will be comfortable with this but used properly, social media tends to have a lighter, more informal, more humourous touch than traditional communications.  This can humanize a candidate and a campaign and make the candidate more likeable, especially if they’re self-deprecating.  (In all honesty, Brad Wall’s Twitter and Facebook are perfect examples – recently on Facebook, his social media team posted “There’s a lot of walls in the Legislature where we can hang Saskatchewan art.  Some would say one too many Walls!”  Or when an NDP supporter tweeted something complimentary about Wall, his social media immediately replied “How about a lawn sign?  Too soon?”)
  • In terms of the lighter touch of social media, we had great (but to be fair, not always unanimously positive) feedback about the humourous meme graphics we put out throughout the campaign which is part of hoping to ensure people had positive associations with our campaign.
  • You can’t always control what will or won’t go viral but when something we released would go viral, we’d suddenly get a much higher influx of new people checking out our page than we’d ever anticipated which was great for exposing our campaign, policies and ideas to new people.
  • Social media provides immediate feedback – you can post a policy document on Facebook or Twitter and comments will begin coming in within seconds!
  • You can encourage engagement.  Early on, we used the tag #skideas to promote policy ideas people had submitted directly on to Ryan’s web site and also to encourage people on Twitter to share their own ideas with our campaign as well.
  • I guess the final value of social media is that if you build up a strong, diverse “Meme Team”, you have a ready made group of people who can share and amplify messages, swarm polls (if you’re into that kind of thing) or respond to people with differing viewpoints in online forums, whether it’s the comments section of a CBC news story or otherwise.  As one small example, if you’re putting out a new video, you’d probably want to have a group of people at the ready to share that video to maximize its reach.

Did social media cost Ryan Meili the election?  No, and to think otherwise is to be purposely obtuse and/or willfully uninformed.

There are numerous reasons why the result ended up being so close (playing off our losing margin, I’ve even written a list of “44 Reasons We Lost” although I think that one’s going to stay in my personal journal as therapy rather than go public!).  For me, social media is actually one of many reasons why Ryan’s campaign was as successful as it was and garnered as much interest – again, within the province and beyond – as it did.

And further to that, I still firmly believe that technology – including social media, data mining, modeling scenarios, etc – has a huge and growing role to play in political campaigns.  You just have to look at the capabilities and ease-of-use of a tool like NationBuilder and how it combines these different functions – by pulling in information from social media and matching it to a membership database, allowing for crunching and analysis of all kinds of data, reaching out to people who you might not otherwise encounter and so on, its importance will only grow.

The gold-standard for combining technology, data analysis and social media is the Obama campaign in the US.  No one would deny that this combination of data/technology/social media played a HUGE role in Obama’s victory last November.  Team Meili didn’t have full-time paid experts and millions of dollars at our disposal to replicate that campaign’s success of course.  But we did have a team of (volunteer) experts, a lot of creative ideas and a set goal which meant that, based on some of the feedback I heard after the convention from some high-placed observers, many felt we made a great show in our attempt to use a similar model.

So perhaps the problem isn’t that Ryan’s campaign was running a great social media campaign for 2013.  The problem is that we were running a great social media that was ahead of its time – at least by Saskatchewan political standards – and it’s just that @mcouros, John Gormley and others don’t realise it…yet.


The race is over but our team is still using social media outlets and the Internet to communicate and share our thoughts.  For that reason, this post would be the perfect place to collect some of their work.  If you’ve written or created something you want added to this list, let me know!  And I humbly suggest that with the amount of great work done by various members of Team Meili in social media, graphic design and other areas, they should be entitled to at least 49.7% of all patronage jobs and contracts! 😉

Comments 2

  1. Mike wrote:

    I think you’re on the mark. Online media isn’t an end-all organizing medium, but it is another opportunity to “go where the people are” and try to convert energy and emotions into concrete actions. Even though only a small sliver of your prospects will interact with your Twitter account, it is a great opportunity to capture those who do and turn that contact into something productive. One could argue that those actions are legion: signing up for your list, pledging to vote, making a donation, getting connected to Facebook friends who need a nudge to go vote (real tall-grass Obama territory).

    But the real challenge that online organizers now face, having established the credibility of the medium, is demonstrating success. That requires results you can measure. With numbers and junk. And likes and follows don’t count anymore. So I’m keen to hear how you think planning/goal-setting online (and then reporting results) fit into the bigger picture.

    Posted 21 Mar 2013 at 9:50 pm
  2. HeadTale wrote:

    Hey Mike,

    Well, I think goal setting is definitely important, if, for nothing else, to give you motivation to hit certain targets. That doesn’t always work completely – at one point early in the campaign, we had projected that we could possibly make it to 5000 Likes. Obviously we only made it to half of that – but would we have even been that successful without the original ambitious goal?

    I guess it’s Project Management 101 stuff in some ways – Initiate -> Plan -> Execute -> Assess/Revise (repeat) while keeping good records of how you move through these steps so you can make the case to the candidate/party/funders/others who may run in the future.

    Posted 23 Apr 2013 at 8:46 pm

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