The 2008 elections in the US was heralded as the first 'social media election'.

Voters took to budding social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their electoral activities – from voicing their support for a particular candidate or ballot measure to posting their complaints regarding the electoral process.

Now four years on and with elections less than a month away, each presidential candidate is once again intensifying their efforts to win electoral votes through some tried and tested social media channels, as well as exploring new ones. Some of these efforts have paid off by generating buzz for candidates and their respective parties, while others have backfired. Despite the mixed results, social media remains an integral part of presidential campaigns, given that just over 60 percent of 18 to 34-year-old Americans get their election information via social networks, according to research from Harris Interactive and Digitas. As further evidence of how voters have taken to social media to follow the elections, the presidential debate was one of the most tweeted events in American political history.

And it would be fair to say that businesses could learn a thing or two from the way in which the latest presidential campaigns are harnessing the power of social media in order to garner public support and influence voters.

Early lessons from the campaign trail

While it may still be a little early to analyze the effectiveness of each social media tactic that’s been employed thus far by presidential candidates on the campaign trail, here are some pointers that we’ve identified:

Experimenting with up-and-coming social media channels can have huge pay offs.

In late August, President Barack Obama posted on influential link-sharing website Reddit “I am Barack Obama, President of the United States – AMA.” With that post, President Obama introduced his own Reddit thread and generated an explosion of social media chatter. As a site that has shown steady growth recently and now receives millions of page views each month, the IamA section of the site allows Reddit users to pose questions directly to prominent individuals and has increasingly attracted some big names, including Ron Paul, Larry King and most recently of course, President Obama. As such, Reddit allowed the President to participate in a Q&A session that wasn’t limited by geography and at the same time increased his social media footprint significantly.

Be aware that there will always be a risk of losing control.

Social media is a great way to build support for any initiative, but it can also be a way to quickly lose control of your message. The RNC for example, purchased the hashtag  #AreYouBetterOff as a way to highlight the failure of President Obama’s economic policies. Unfortunately for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, it had the opposite effect as the unforgiving Twitterverse responded with a resounding “yes”! It is therefore important to recognize that sponsored hashtags will not always be used in the way that was envisaged.

Real-time engagement is now the norm.

Social media has provided the public with a near instant means of posting feedback about a company, event or prominent figure. Because of this, real-time engagement is now expected and candidates and businesses are expected to be able to respond quickly. Remember, social media should be a two-way conversation. Monitoring feedback from social media can also provide candidates and businesses with a quick temperature read on public opinion and help them tailor their response as appropriate.

Harnessing data enables you to be more strategic.

As social media has matured since the 2008 elections, presidential candidates have learned the importance of being strategic with their social media campaigns. In other words, social media is more than just connecting with more people across new channels. It means actually delivering a strategic integration that allows campaign organizers to collect data about voters to help refine campaign messages and convince voters to choose their candidates. Along these same lines, businesses are recognizing the need to exploit the large amounts of data now provided by social media for their own purposes.

There is no such thing as bad publicity. Or is there?

The age old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is oft quoted when it comes to dealing with less than favorable stories in the media and might have held true in the days when traditional media ruled the airwaves and was the sole source of information for the majority. However, in today’s hyper-connected digital environment, social media channels have left organizations and public figures open and accountable to an unprecedented level while user-generated content has shifted how information is created and disseminated.

So what does this mean for the 2012 US presidential candidates and businesses?

Essentially, with more channels to access information, audiences are more fragmented than ever before. Consumers are no longer limited to watching their favorite TV shows during designated times dictated by networks. Today, consumers have the option to access video content from their mobile devices or their desktop computers. Consumers are also no longer passively taking in information, as they now have several channels available to them through which they can actively participate in open discussion.

And with the public now being able to readily share their experiences and opinions on a global stage, perhaps another age old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ might now be more appropriate.

No doubt we’ll see more social media triumphs and failures unfold in the run up to November 6.

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