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When it comes to the use of social media for political campaigning, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, provided the case study in the 2008 election. Using services like Facebook and Twitter to rally and organize his supporters, he was able to run a grassroots campaign that hadn't really been seen before.

After he was sworn in, it looked like social media would continue to play a role in his administration but, for obvious reasons, the President significantly turned down his personal use of social channels. Recently he's been trying to turn it on again, but will he be successful this time around? His recent social media usage hints that the President may have a more challenging time using social media to his benefit in 2012.

In an attempt to encourage citizens to call their congressmen over the debt ceiling debate, the president turned to Twitter. The New York Daily News has the details:

Obama asked Americans Friday to call, email, and tweet Congressional leaders to “keep the pressure on” lawmakers in hopes of reaching a bipartisan deal to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline.

Obama’s campaign staff used the @BarackObama Twitter account to post the Twitter handles of tweeting GOP leaders – state by state, tweet by tweet.

“Tweet at your Republican legislators and urge them to support a bipartisan compromise to the debt crisis,” Obama’s campaign staff wrote on his account before launching the day-long Twitter campaign.

The effectiveness of the campaign remains to be seen. But what we do know: President Obama's tweetstorm appears to have caused him to lose some 40,000 Twitter followers in a single day. And the campaign generated a lot of negative chatter. Many considered the president's tweets to be spam, and some even went so far as to call them a sign of "desperation." At least some of the criticism highlighted by the Post appeared to be leveled by the president's own supporters.

Obviously, blasting out a bevy of tweets was probably not a good idea. President or not, most Twitter users don't want to be flooded with tweets from a single person. But the bigger question about Obama's use of social media is this: is it possible to turn social media on and off as you need it and still be successful?

There are plenty of good reasons President Obama isn't tweeting night and day. He is, after all, the leader of the United States. In other words, he has a lot on his plate and realistically there is no way he could have been expected to maintain his pre-presidency levels of social media activity once he took office. At the same time, his Twitter faux pas hints at the possibility that using social media only when you need others to do something for you in the immediate term is a flawed social media strategy.

Social media is about "engagement." That means different things to different people, but at the end of the day, the key to effective engagement is that everyone involved feels that he or she is getting something out of the interaction. In other words, if you want social media to work for you, you have to provide value to the people you're engaging with. You can't simply expect to leave a conversation and return only when you have something to say.

That, however, appears to be what President Obama is trying to do. Will he be able to make it work? Only time will tell.

For the rest of us mere mortals, it's important to remember that the 'relationships' we form through social channels should be maintained and nurtured just like any other. Because even if one of the most powerful individuals in the world proves capable of using social media effectively only when it suits his needs, most individuals and businesses don't have the same luxury.

Patricio Robles

Published 2 August, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jamie McHale

Interesting article, you raise some good points and I think it's a fair assessment that such listing could be seen as spam or desperation.

However, as recently as last week the White House (and by extension Obama as it's likely managed by the same team) showed what you call "engagement" with it Rik-Rolling an unsuspecting follower.

Showing this funny side (and more importantly, knowledge of internet memes, albeit old ones) I think indicates the high echelons of American power know exactly what they're doing.

Let's give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

about 5 years ago

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@JakeSargent

Turning on and off is certainly not the way to go, but also surely tweeting a link to a webpage listing the Tweet handles of all the Congressional leaders would have been a better way to go, rather than spamming everyone...

about 5 years ago

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Roy Wells

I agree with your point that continued engagement is a key element of a being successful on social media channels. Nevertheless, 9.4 million followers recognize some value in following his tweets regardless of their frequency. Given the sheer size of his following the loss of 37,000 followers was pretty insignificant.

If just 1% of his followers responded to his call for action, some 94,000 followers would have contacted those 113 members of Congress. Since it is likely that those 37,000 followers were more likely monitoring his stream than political supporters, the real question, as you point out, was whether he was successful.

To your point about us mere mortals, you are spot on. If we are to be successful on social media channels, continued engagement is a must.

about 5 years ago

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Steve @Gravytrain

I couldn't agree more with social media having to be a continued presence rather than one that can just be switched on and off. Especially with twitter. In order to build a rapore with your followers you have to continually maintain a presence, little surprised really that a huge amount of people thought Obama's campaign was spam. That would indeed be an error by the team he had working behind him.

about 5 years ago

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Jeff Molander

President Obama's administration is nearly inept at everything BUT social media. Time and time again, the administration (and let's be clear on that) has used Twitter to **RALLY BEHAVIOR** (not just run a grassroots campaign).

Obama's use of SM during the campaign was remarkable for one reason: it caused meaningful behavior, contributions, measurable behavior.

And now we are to be surprised when the administration does it again? Hardly. We should likewise not be surprised (given the "Tea Party" movement's ability to galvanize the growing economic hardship of a nation) that people see it as grasping at straws. Which, if you ask me, is remarkably sad for a nation that, already, has so much to complain about all while sitting on its lazy rump.

So, again, the President is using social media very, very well -- to create action, not sentiment or "brand preference."

about 5 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Jeff,

If Barack Obama did lose 40,000 followers in one day, and the comments that were made about his tweetfest are any indication, it seems like his latest social media effort had a measurable negative impact.

I do, however, think you make a good point about using social media to drive action, as opposed to using it to build and maintain a "brand."

That said, driving action with social media is similar to the dynamic seen when asking for favors: most of us perform favors for people who we know, trust and like. The person who comes around only when he needs a favor isn't likely to receive one. As such, if you want to drive action using social media, you can't be social only when you need something from your followers.

about 5 years ago

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Steve

Quite honestly the way our world is these days, I would not be disappointed to see the President slack on Twitter to do a bit more on the global market.

about 5 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Hi, Patricio...
Good point, yes. But I dare say the President is not a Johnny Come Lately. My point is this: The American public fits your characterization more than President Obama does -- not based on their tweets or un-follows but based on their consistent, relentless apathetic behavior.

Of course, I have become apathetic too. But that's just a factor of how little pain I've been forced to endure. And pain (sacrifice) is something that we Americans seem to have literally erased from our existence over the years. But that too is about to change/is changing. I look at Robert Greenspan's freedom and wonder if we've lost justice as well. Woah. Now this is getting political :)

about 5 years ago

Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander, CEO at Molander & Associates Inc.

Oops. I meant Alan Greenspan.

about 5 years ago

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Orange County Grassroots Marketing

I think this time around social media will not help him as much as before. Because a lot of promise he made he was not able to follow though (even if it is not his fault). Social media is something that most would consider personal and a lot of trust in place with it, so it is a great tool to gain the trust and favor of your audience but failure comes at a great cost as well. In order for President Obama to use social media to its full potential he must regain the public trust.

about 5 years ago

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