Developing a Social Media Plan: Lessons from Election 2008

Submitted by Brett on Tue, 10/28/2008 - 2:44pm

Lauren-Glenn Davitian, CCTV Center for Media and Democracy

Election 2008 is remarkable for so many reasons. For the first time in U.S. history, the candidates for president have raised more than $1 Billion. Voter registration is headed for new highs across the nation -- with a firestorm of newly registered voters under the age of thirty. And early voting levels (2.2 million ballots as of this writing) indicate a massive, record-breaking turnout on Tuesday, November 4th.

While campaigns employ a variety of communications tactics to win an election (from door knocking to lawn signs to TV commercials), it may be hard to determine exactly what role social media tools have played in this historic year. But, clearly, the campaigns have made social media a central strategy in their Donor, Volunteer and Voter mobilization efforts. As agents of social change, there is a great deal the nonprofit sector can learn from Election 2008.

Tools you can Use. Starting with the new(ish) generation of interactive websites and blogs, we can observe how mainstream and alternative organizations serve up news, critical analysis, community building and civic engagement.

And of course, the campaigns themselves are using network centric tools to activate a grass roots base. The successful campaigns are using e-commerce, video, photos, blogging, mobile action, widgets, event management and more to augment the traditional (and extremely effective) precinct organizing model. Compare the major campaigns and judge for yourself how (or if) they integrate social media tools to mobilize real people to action:,, and

Now, let's take a quick look at some of the stand-alone social media tools that are being used to court your money, time, and vote -- especially if you live in a battleground state:

  • Viral Video: With millions of viewers, You Tube, Current TV and other on-line video services are proving to be a way around the bias of mainstream news and a direct route to voters, donors, and campaign workers. More than 85 million people have watched Barack Obama on You Tube and 22 million have watched John McCain videos—all of them include a "tell-a-friend" link. A couple of examples: and (
  • Social Network Sites: In an effort to court the younger voter, candidates have built presences on My Space and Facebook. As of October 9th, Obama's campaign had more than 2 million Facebook supporters, with John McCain at 565,000 and Ralph Nader at almost 10,000. These site subscribers are the hubs of their own social networks -- a population un-polled by traditional pollsters but known to the campaigns.
  • Go Mobile: Mobile applications have surged in this 2008 and some predict it will make the difference in the election's outcome. According to the New Voter's Project, texting increased young voter turn out by 4.6% in the September primary. From periodic candidate updates and requests for time, money, and votes to virtual phone banks, national and local campaigns are finding new ways to mobilize a growing percentage the US's 277 million mobile users.

Mash-Ups: Twitter gives you 140 characters to make your point ("tweet") to an international community of people interested in following your comments. Election 2008 searches the endless stream of "tweets" for key electon words (McCain, Palin, Obama, Biden, Clinton, etc.) and aggregates them. These posts were literally "mashed up" with Current TV's election debate feeds that aired on their cable channel and web video feed. The steady stream of observations ran as debate subtitles and gave a quick peek into the mind of the US voter (or at least the tech-savvy segment of the population). Twemes also aggregates Twitter posts (you direct it with a pound sign: #votereport). Andy Carvin and others just launched a new "tweme" that will track local voting irregularities.

B/T/W Twitter posts can also be tracked through Twittervision (AND don't miss Flickrvision).

  • Widgets: These small pieces of computer code let you to download polling, and candidate news and information directly to your web site, desktop or mobile device. They work really well when you want to keep track of things like olympic results and electoral votes.
  • Mapping – Electronic mapping is truly a community phenomenon. They present a quick and effective way to communicate details to a large audience. The earliest and best examples of this are found in the New York Times and NPR. But of course mapping has gone public.
  • Games – Perhaps the elections are enough of a virtual game that we don't generate more on-line election games. eLECTIONS is an interesting example of civics for young people, updated from 2004. 2012 may be the year that Second Life emerges as a major player in a national election. Gaming is just beginning to enter mainstream communications strategy and has great potential for social change organizations and is just beginning to be considered.

Network Effect. But here's the thing: Winning campaigns look beyond the tools themselves. They craft an overarching strategy that moves beyond compiling lists of voters to construct, instead, a community of supporters. The members of this community identify strongly with the candidate and each other as part of a broader movement. A major change in this year's campaign (according to Micah Sifry of TechPresident) is the use of social media tools to create networks of people enabled to take on many campaign functions themselves. In this election, supporters set up their own fundraising pages and reach out directly to their web of friends. They pick up their own phones and turn out voters in their neighborhoods and families across the country (See: "The Great Schlep".)

The successful campaigns use these tools to create the network effect necessary to move large numbers of people in their same direction.

What is your social media strategy? We can learn a great deal from the best practices of Election 2008. Planning an event or building a campaign? We can get the most impact from social media when we apply a strategic framework to the work ahead. In short, Gina Bianchini, founder of offers the best advice about how to build a social network -- plan it like a party that people won't want to leave. To sum it up: Give them plenty of room to tell their own stories. Start with a good idea, likable host, right mood, key pre-party invitees, crank it up, expect crashers and have fun.

It's all about the people. Any successful project starts with a close look who we want to move to action. Draw a picture of your ideal users: where they live, what they do, how old they are, what language they speak, what kind of house they live in, what is their work, gender, orientation? Learn as much as you can about the people you want to serve. You can then focus both your message and distribution strategies in a way that will engage your people and move them to action.

Have a conversation. In order to tell people what action to take, you need to listen first. Use one-one-one meetings and phone calls, casual group sessions and brief surveys ask them to talk about themselves: What do they care about? Who are their friends? How do they like to communicate with each other and you? What formal and informal networks do they cultivate? Depending on your audience, you will find that it is not one, but a combination of communications strategies -- on-line and offline -- that will work for them.

Develop your Sticky Message(s) and Test Them. What is it exactly that you want people to do? You may have a great video for them to watch, but you really want them to donate. Get clear on the action you want people to take and then you can develop the pathway for them to follow. Will a short on-line video effectively catch the attention of your younger donor, older donor or both? Will a letter in the mail work better? Should the message be the same? Will it help you if they can "send it to a friend"? Is it easy for them to take action (donate) once they've watched the video? Be sure to test your messages and tactics with small groups of people before you scale up to your large audiences.

Combine Off-Line and On-Line Strategies. Political campaigns show us that we cannot rely on any one strategy. With varied audiences with different interests and communications preferences, we need to develop a strategy that combines live events with print, billboards, broadcast media and the interactive web. There are many great sources on this topic -- many of whom present with and blog for NTEN and TechSoup.

Measure Twice, Cut Once. It is vital for you to find out if your social media strategy is working. Are you meeting your numbers (donations, volunteers, attendees)? Are people positive about their experiences with your organization? Do they want to come back? These questions require you to set up analytic tools and prompt you to keep the conversation going with your people, over time. Don't be afraid to experiment -- even if your efforts don't pay off as you would like them to, they are full of valuable lessons to apply the next go-round! (You can also learn a great deal from voracious experimenters like Beth Kanter.

Time is on your Side. Remember that a social media strategy is less like a date and more like a long friendship. We treat our peeps well so they hang with us. We check in to see how they are doing. We have a good time together. We respect each other's space. Be sure to make your tools easy to use, don't clutter people's mail boxes, say thank you (often) and follow up with progress reports so people know that they have made a difference.

For a rich set of resources on this vast and exciting subject, be sure to check out NTEN's fantastic resource, We Are Media.

We'd love to hear from you about great examples of election social media at

For references please see:

Additional resources can be found at:

Lauren-Glenn Davitian is the Executive Director at CCTV's Center for Media & Democracy, dedicated to free speech, public access and open networks in Burlington, Vermont.