Updated January, 2011
If you want to build a following online, a good strategy is to go where the people are — and in 2011, plenty of them have flocked to online social networks, particularly (in the U.S.) on Facebook. Earlier versions of this guide focused on strategies for MySpace and the plethora of other social networks, but over the past two years Facebook has come to dominate the social side of online advocacy to an unprecedented degree. Facebook (and to a lesser extent, niche social websites like Black Planet) have in some ways become the modern equivalent of town squares, places where people from all walks of life can mingle and connect in a public environment and where campaigns can fish for support in a pond both broad and deep.
Since 2008 edition of this guide, political campaigns and nonprofits have hit social networks hard, but before we dive in, let’s answer the basic question of what a social networking site IS. An online social network is a website on which people and organizations can set up profile pages with basic information about themselves and then link to other people’s pages — it’s that simple. Readers typically browse profiles by searching by keyword or name or by following links from one person to another, and they can also leave comments behind as they go.
Getting “friends” is as easy as going to a someone’s profile and requesting a link. You can also use social networking profiles as a mass communications tool by sending a message to many of your friends at once (if the site allows it), by posting a link to an outside piece of content or by starting a conversation on a page. Facebook’s audience — 500 million strong worldwide as of this update — is particularly diverse, taking in a big swath of ages and demographics, though it does still skew somewhat on the younger side.
Facebook as a Political Tool for Organizations and Campaigns
I’m reluctant to go into too much detail about Facebook in this guide, because the company changes features often enough that anything we cover has the potential to go out of date quickly (for the latest, check the main Epolitics.com site or specialized social media trackers like Mashable, AllFacebook and InsideFacebook). But as of early 2011, Facebook wants campaigns, organizations and corporations to create “pages” rather than profiles, while individual activists can use either their own profiles or create a page. Facebook groups, the early version of pages, are fading out fast.
The advantage of pages is that they can be customized to a certain extent, plus they’re free from the limitations on the number of individual followers that profiles encounter. To highlight content or brand themselves, campaigns can create “tabs” that effectively function as sub-pages within their main page. Commonly, tabs might feature different issues and actions, and many of the email-advocacy vendors now offer the ability to incorporate action alerts into tabs. And just like individual profiles, pages include “walls” to which administrators can post content such as videos, photos and links to blog posts or websites — besides being a powerful tool to engage people over time and draw them into your issues, Facebook has also become a crucial path for videos and other pieces of creative work to spread virally. Also, since followers can leave comments on a page’s wall and engage in conversations among themselves, pages have become a truly interactive venue.
Besides walls, another function shared between profiles and pages is the ability to post “notes,” which are longer pieces of text that work much like blog posts (MySpace pages also automatically include a blogging function). Notes allow for more elaborate content than a wall post, and Sarah Palin in particular turned her Facebook notes into a message-distribution tool followed by millions in 2009-2010.
Tabs can also include more advanced features: for instance, Facebook has opened its system to let outside programmers to create software applications (“apps”) that allow for much more complex kinds of interactions than those native to the site itself. Some advocacy groups have created their own apps, but most turn to outside vendors to handle the complex coding needed.
Finally, Facebook is one of the few social media channels on which organizations and campaigns can “buy” support, since Facebook Ads have turned out to be a very effective way to build a following. For more, see the political advertising chapter.
General Considerations for Social Network Outreach
Sometimes, a social networking profile will be simple “brochureware” — little more than an online business card and a chance to get your name in front of potential supporters. To get more out of it, try adding links to your individual campaigns (if you’re an advocacy group) or to more information about each of your issues. Always include a way to join your email list, and a donate button wouldn’t hurt, either. Many MySpace sites are garish and assault readers with sound and flashing graphics (hello, late-90s Tripod and Geocities sites), so you’ll probably want to use pictures or other graphics to illustrate your links, but be sparing — having a “clean” site may actually help you stand out. Facebook pages and profiles are “clean” by their basic nature, though tabs allow for more customization and creativity.
A few other things to keep in mind:
- Friend lists tend to build exponentially (the more people who see you, the more people who are going to link to you), so try to build a healthy list right away. If you have an email list or newsletter, mention your Facebook page to your readers when you launch it and invite them to follow you. Also, look for organizations that work on related issues and try to connect with them, since being shown on their page will put you in front of a friendly audience right away.
- Use social networking sites to promote your action alerts! Send a mass message out to all of your friends (if the site allows it) and also post notice of it on your wall or profile. Readers are more likely to sign up for your list if you present them with a specific action to take. Encourage them to spread the word, through direct messages to friends, Facebook status updates, profile photos, etc.
- Additionally explicitly ask your friends to post your alert or other content on their profiles. 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 space. Your fans are your best online ambassadors.
- Political campaigns in particular should use badges, buttons, widgets and other content snippets that supporters can place on their own sites. Let THEM promote YOU even when they’re not actively adding more to their profiles. Have a clear download section on your profile page and on your main website, and encourage people to change their profile pictures to your badge or otherwise promote it prominently.
- MySpace users in particular are a diverse bunch, and many people use the site for dating and self-promotion. You may end up with some “friends” with an exhibitionist streak, so try to decide in advance how to handle friend requests from less-conventional parts of your audience. This consideration is probably more important for a candidate than for other types of campaigns! On Facebook, advocacy groups and candidates should consider in advance how they plan to handle conversations on their pages or posts that get out of hand.
- As with every other website, don’t let your content slip out of date. If you’re afraid that you’re not going to have time to keep your profile updated, stick with evergreen content.
- Finally, don’t just assign some random intern or junior staffer to create and run a social networking profile because “they’re young and know about these things.” A Facebook page or MySpace site is just as much a part of your campaign’s public front as your main website is, and it must be on message. Make sure that it meshes with your overall communications strategy.
Building Social Networks on Your Own Site
Several vendors now offering to help organizations set up Facebook-like functions on their own sites. I haven’t worked directly with any of them yet, but it’s a tactic that shows some promise. For a lesson from the 2008 presidential primaries, Barack Obama’s custom social network (MyBarackObama.com) was terrifically successful, gaining a couple of million members and sparking plenty of real-world behavior, but John McCain’s original 2007 soc net failed completely. In 2009-2010, custom networks spread to statewide races, but organizations thinking about creating their own social networks will want to consider carefully the scale they’ll need to reach in order to succeed — without enough members, soc nets fade fast.
The Future of Social Networking
As of this writing, the future of online social networks as a political tool seems to hinge around Facebook, though the real question is its ability to spark concrete action in the real world — social networks tend to create “soft” ties that don’t necessarily convert into commitment. As a fundraising tool, for instance, Facebook has largely failed so far, with most Facebook “causes” raising a few dollars at most — even the successful campaigns have generally raised far less money than a well-tended email list would yield from the same number of members. Likewise, posting an advocacy action such as a “send an email to Congress” message to a Facebook page usually yields some results, but generally with a much lower action-rate than you’d expect from an email list of equivalent size.
But as an initial recruiting tool and a means to engage followers over time, Facebook can be quite powerful, especially if you’re able to employ Facebook advertising to build an initial base. And for individual activists, Facebook can be an extremely important platform, since they’re limited only by their own ability to reach out and connect with potential supporters. The key to long-term results seems to be to think about Facebook as the initial rung on a “ladder of engagement” — get people to follow your campaign and then feed them information and offers to take action over time until enough of them make the jump into activism.
Really successful social networking-based campaigns generally seem to work with the strengths of the medium rather than treating it as just another broadcast tool — organizers engage their friends and followers one-on-one and at length, fostering commitment among (at times) relatively small but strong groups. Deeply engaged social networking outreach often aims to foster the creation of webs of super-activists who organize their OWN friends, with each forming the hub of a web of individual advocates.
Some campaigns also use Facebook essentially as email-replacement tools, particularly when working with younger audiences, but I suspect that email and social-network messaging will merge to a great extent down the road — ultimately, integrated campaign communications systems may not necessarily need to distinguish between the two.
Finally, some zealous true believers argue that electronic social networks will eventually be as ubiquitous as air, with each of us embedded in them from waking until sleep. We’ll see; in that case, they’ll replace most personal online communications. And I’ll need to rewrite this book yet again.