Social media, brand management - and Michigan Democrats

(As we head into the final 24 hours of a hotly contested campaign for MDP Chair, I wanted to express a few thoughts regarding what Democrats - not only on Townsend Street in Lansing, but Democrats in general - need to do regarding communicating our message and managing the Democratic brand.)

Three years ago, we saw one of the most egregious attacks on our Republic since its founding. The Citizens United decision posed - and continues to pose - a substantial threat to the integrity of our elections. Later that year, we saw just how detrimental unregulated corporate funding of our elections can be to our Party and our civic process.

One of the major reasons Citizens United is such a detriment to our elections is that it enables politicians and corporations to manipulate the message voters hear by buying up hundreds - even thousands - of points in TV advertising, plus countless lit pieces, robocalls, and the like. (For those who don't know, for every 100 points of TV advertising bought by a campaign or company, the average viewer will see their ad  once. For example, if a campaign buys 700 points' worth of TV advertising, then the average viewer will see their ad(s) seven times.)

While Citizens United puts progressives and democracy itself at a disadvantage, we have a powerful tool up our sleeves. A tool which, if used effectively, can neutralize the harmful effects of Citizens United. A tool which Obama used very effectively in 2008 and 2012 - and one which we Michigan Democrats need to use effectively in order to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.

That tool is social media.

Social media and brand/reputation management
When I say the words "Ann Arbor," what comes to mind? It probably involves the University of Meeeeeeeee-chigan.

What about "Detroit Tigers?" Perhaps you think of one of their players, either past or present. Perhaps Jim Leyland, Sparky Anderson, or Ernie Harwell come to mind. Maybe you think of the 2012 AL championship, Comerica Park, the Illitch family, or perhaps their losing ways of just a few years ago.

Let's try another one: Unions. Many of us on the left think of the word "Solidarity," while others think of good wages and working conditions. Sadly, some think of "union bosses" and "thugs."

What are three things that people associate with you? What are three things they associate with Obama? Romney? Snyder? Urbanowski? (Just kidding - 2022 is still a few years away.)

I could go on, but the point is, your average John Q. LionsSuck is going to associate certain entities with certain things. They draw on those things when deciding what to buy, where to shop, what to watch - and yes, how to vote. The point of brand management is to ensure that people associate you, your campaign, or your company with only positive things - making them more likely to vote for you or buy your product or service.

In 2008, people associated Obama with hope and change, while they associated McCain with "more of the same" (i.e. more Dubya). In 2012, it was Obama's "Forward" versus the out-of-touch Romney. In both years, OFA used social media to effectively paint both Obama and his opponent as they wanted. In 2010, on the other hand, we saw "one tough nerd" beat "the angry mayor." As Bernero's fate reminded us, we can't always control our reputation - but we better do what we can.

People are busy. They hear dozens - even hundreds - of messages each day telling them what to wear, what to drive, where to vacation, and what to eat. During election season, they also see hundreds of messages about how to vote. As you can imagine, it can be hard for the brain to retain all that information. Indeed, the brain only remembers so much about certain entities. That could explain why, with all the ads you have heard over the years for a certain shoe brand, you still associate said brand with the phrase "Just do it."

If a voter sees a TV commercial saying "Vote for X," and then they see something on Facebook saying "Vote for Y," they get two conflicting messages - but one campaign paid a considerable amount of money to spread that message, while the other campaign likely spent little, if anything. (NB: the impact of Facebook ads is not the same as the impact of a TV commercial, which is not the same as the impact of a lit piece in the mail, etc.)

This is why campaigns and parties need to be careful how to spend their communications dollars. Just as the candidate with the most money doesn't always win, the candidate with the most likes and retweets won't always win. Just like money, social media must be used properly and effectively by candidates, in order to ensure that voters have a favorable view of the Democratic brand and its candidates. As George W. Bush would say, candidates need to use "strategery."

When used effectively, social media can also:

Help candidates and electeds stay in touch with their voters. People are more likely to vote for candidates if they feel connected to those candidates.

Remind supporters to vote. Two things are well documented: (1) More Americans lean Democratic than Republican and agree with us on issues - yet (2) Republican voters are more likely to vote consistently, in every election, without missing one. While it's hard to forget about a presidential election - and while few people miss a presidential election because they forgot to vote - people are much more likely to forget about voting in a midterm, primary, or local election. Social media can, and should, supplement phone banking and door-to-door as effective GOTV tools. (Notice I said "supplement," not "replace" - social media cannot replace these more traditional GOTV methods!)

Educate people about issues and candidates. Why is it important to raise the minimum wage? Why should we buy local? What is it about Candidate Z's character that would make her an impeccable public servant? Social media can be an effective way of getting people to understand issues and candidates.

Educate people about the voting process. The 2012 ballot was one of the more confusing ballots in recent Michigan history. Result? Some voters voted straight Democratic, not realizing that that they hadn't voted for our Supreme Court candidates. (Judge Connie Kelley got 45% fewer votes than Obama.) Not understanding everything on the ballot, many people voted No on all 6 statewide proposals. Yet consider the example of Justice McCormack, who credits her victory to Facebook ads, among other things.

Refute lies. True or false? In non-"right-to-work" states, you must join a union and pay union dues in order to work in a unionized environment. That, of course, is false. Thanks to a long-ago Supreme Court ruling, no American is required to join any union under any circumstances. It is shocking how many people don't realize that. Yet because they don't, Right-to-freeload supporters are more likely to get away with their lies."If the Republicans will stop telling lies about the Democrats," Adlai Stevenson promised, "we will stop telling the truth about them." The way things are going, we won't have to stop telling the truth about them anytime soon. OFA's Truth Team was a great example of using the power of the Internet to speak the truth about the President's record.

A look at demographics
With any type of marketing, you have to know your audience.

Pew recently published a report on internet users and social media. Among their key findings: Social media users tend to be younger, with 83% of 18- to 29-year-old Internet users on at least one social network. Internet users who make less than $30,000 per year are more likely to use social media than those who make more than $30,000. Furthermore, among internet users, women, residents of urban areas, and minorities are more likely to use social media than men, rural residents, and Caucasians, respectively.

Youth, lower-income Americans, minorities, women, urban residents... Notice a trend? This is our base! These are the people whose support we need in order to win. These are the people to whom we need to be reaching out.

Because it is such a new phenomenon, the role of social media on politics is the subject of much debate. But there is little doubt that social media does play a role in elections by affecting how voters view candidates and brands. For this reason, unless you are a 'paper candidate' who has no chance of winning (as this blogger was in 2012), your campaign needs to use social media. And that is why social media needs to play a bigger role in Democrats' communication efforts going forward.

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