By Colin Delany, epolitics.com
Many issue advocacy and electoral campaigns are experimenting with online social networking sites and social media as ways to reach supporters and motivate volunteers. What should you keep in mind as you dip your toes into this new medium? What's working? What might just blow up in your face?
If you've never been to one, social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster work on a "circle of friends" model. They're designed to allow people and organizations to set up profile pages about themselves and then link them to other users' profiles. Site users can follow links from one profile to another, search by keyword and leave comments on other users' profiles.
Setting up a MySpace page or a Friendster profile is easy -- it only takes a few minutes. Since their users tend to be younger, the sites are particularly good tools for campaigns trying to reach high school/college students and recent graduates.
* Be aggressive! Successful campaigns really work at getting supporters. Go to profiles devoted to similar issues and ask to be friends -- the worst someone can do is say "no." The more profiles your link appears on, the more potential supporters can stumble over you and fall in love.
* Ask your friends to post your alert on their sites. If they really care about your issue, they're often eager to help out. Plus, it gives THEM some interesting (you hope) content for their site.
* Don't let your content slip out of date! If you're not able to update your profile regularly, stick to "evergreen" information about your campaign.
Now, let's expand our view and look at the wider world of social media. First, what are we talking about? Social media is a broader concept than social networking -- it refers generally to content created by site users rather than by a central person or group. YouTube and Wikipedia are great examples, as are blogs that allow comments. Besides the obvious example of blogs, how can campaigns and organizations use social media?
That being said, allowing your supporters to generate content has some real strengths as a tactic. For one thing, it allows you to capture the brainpower of far more people than you could reasonably hire on your own -- you can leverage the collective intelligence of a chunk of the internet. Much of the content will be junk, of course, but the occasional gems that rise to the surface might just blow you away. And of course, it's potentially a terrific tool for community building.
Besides video, a campaign could solicit slogans from supporters, ask them to contribute their own personal stories or essays to an online presentation, provide them with photos to embellish with captions and speech bubbles, or ask them to vote or comment on ads, speeches and position papers, just to name a few uses. Any of these tactics can motivate your supporters and get them to help push your campaign over the top.
To purchase the book online, visit George Washington University's Institute for Politics Democracy and the Internet (IPDI).
Colin Delany is founder and chief editor of epolitics.com , a site that focuses on the tools and tactics of Internet politics and online political advocacy. He cut his political teeth in the early '90s in the Texas Capitol (where politics is considered a contact sport), helped launch an email-based legislative alert system in 1996, and co-founded PoliticalInformation.com, a targeted search engine for politics and policy, in 1999. After riding the initial round of 'net-political startups into inevitable oblivion during the first Internet boom and bust, Delany worked as a designer and communications consultant to help dozens of advocacy campaigns promote themselves in the digital world. In 2003, he was brought in as online communications manager at the National Environmental Trust, where he runs a number of advocacy sites in addition to NET.org. He also plays bass in a rock and roll band.