Charles Ellison asked me a good question yesterday: hasn’t Twitter (and by implication, other social channels like Facebook) replaced old-school email as a communications tool for political campaigns? My one-word answer: no. But why?
Charles and I were sitting in a Sirius/XM radio studio just north of downtown DC, where he was guest-hosting the “Politics Powered by Twitter” show on the satellite radio provider’s U.S. politics channel (#124). I’d dropped by to talk about the recent C&E article on prepping for 2014, and his question was a natural one for the host of a show with the word “Twitter” in its title. So why’d I say “no”?
The basic dynamic: Twitter and email both send information over the internet, but that’s about all they have in common as communications media. They simply do different things! Twitter is a giant social conversation involving millions of people. It’s great for injecting ideas into the public dialogue around an issue, and if your audience is big enough, for broadcasting your political content. It’s also a useful tool for reaching “opinion leaders,” the journalists, bloggers, activists and loudmouths who set the tone of the political debate. And it CAN be a good for political organizing, if your targets are in populations with high cell-phone and/or Twitter usage (for instance, younger — and plugged-in — urban black and latino voters).
Email is a very different animal, since it’s the opposite of a “social” channel — it facilitates one-to-one and one-to-many communications. The internet excels at helping us maintain contact with many people at once, and email remains a near-perfect tool for that purpose — when a message arrives in your inbox, it’s in your inbox whenever you want to read it. By comparison, tweets or Facebook post are ephemeral, since they drop out of view within hours or even minutes. Plus, essentially everyone who goes online at all has an email address, while far, far fewer people in the U.S. use Twitter at all, much less regularly.
In practice, a fundraising appeal or advocacy action sent via email tends to have a response rate 10, 20 or 30 times higher than the same action promoted to the same number of people via Twitter. Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign didn’t rely on social media for fundraising any more than its 2008 predecessor did — they banked their online millions largely by contacting their supporters via email again and again (and again and again and again and….).
Of course, email has its problems, from low rates of usage among the young (damn kids!), spam filters, Gmail’s recent inbox changes, etc. But despite endless predictions of its demise, political email thrives today — remember that essentially everyone I talked to for that C&E piece talked about the need for campaigns to build an email list as early as possible.
None of which goes to say that email is the ONLY online tool a campaign should focus on, since while it does what it does well, it only does what it does. No single technology meets all needs! An integrated campaign will use each for the right purposes: social media for outreach and day-to-day supporter engagement, online advertising for recruiting and turnout, email for fundraising and activation, analytics to guide the campaign outreach, grassroots canvassing to contact voters one to one, the candidate’s kids/pets to humanize him or her, etc etc ad nauseum. The magic is in knowing which voters to reach, when, and with what messaging.
In other words, the tools change, but politics is (always) politics. If you want to win, never forget that basic rule.