Will Social Media Give TV a Run for Its Money in the 2016 Election?

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Using social media to reach voters has, of course, become common practice among political candidates. A survey published by Pew Research Center last November found the number of registered voters who follow candidates and other political figures on social media had risen from 6 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2014. As we head toward the 2016 elections, the value of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are picking up steam as platforms for campaigning, especially at the hyperlocal level.

Mike Fricchione, an NYC-based political consultant whose worked on a number of campaigns, says that social media advertising campaigns tend to average only about 10 percent of a political campaign’s advertising budget — but that is up from 2012, when most political campaigns wouldn’t be able to quantify how much money they spent because it was so small.

“Politicians — and especially candidates running for office — are finally catching up to the rest of the word in terms of social media savviness,” says Fricchione. “A part of this is thanks to new Internet-based platforms that allow politicians and candidates to easily and affordably cross-match and connect with likely voters that are on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.”

Tracy Graziani, the director of Graziani Multimedia, asserts that in 2012 people were still debating about whether or not social was actually important in politics.

“There were those who still dismissed it out of hand, and that simply isn’t happening now,” Graziani says. “In the last six months some major hold-outs have given in and gotten social — even POTUS is on Twitter now.”

By leveraging social media, politicians can not only connect with millions of Americans, but also target them via their location. Where someone lives can play a tremendous role in how they vote.

“Politicians are starting to use social media extensively to understand behavioral patterns by location; especially areas that could swing an election one way or another,” says Phil Harris, CEO of Geofeedia, a location-based social media intelligence platform. “In the 2012 election, Ohio was of critical importance to understand voter sentiment and direction based on region by region. Politicians already know that an election can hinge on specific regions and using social media to listen and engage in those areas can have a significant impact on the voting outcome. In addition to the candidates, incumbents use social media throughout their terms to monitor and measure sentiment.”

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter each have their own sets of benefits. They are not created equal, or used to the same extent by every political campaign.

“Each is good for different reasons,” says Graziani. “Your general voting population is on Facebook, [which comprises] roughly 75% of [Americans] now.”

Though Facebook casts the widest net in terms of active users, it’s used less by national campaigns and more by local campaigns, according to Fricchione: “Most local campaigns rely heavily on Facebook because it allows candidates to quickly and easily mobilize close friends and rally neighbors for small-scale volunteering and grassroots efforts. As campaigns get bigger, they tend to rely more on Twitter and Instagram.”

Why would a politician pour dollars into a campaign on a platform that has fewer users than the other? Doesn’t she or he just want to reach as many voters as possible? Nope. Presumably, once you get to a certain level, you’re not interested in simply gaining attention. You want to gain attention from the right people — the people who are paying attention to begin with.

“Traditionally, Twitter has been great from a press perspective for candidates and for campaign staffers who want to send out issue or current events statement to journalists and local papers and blogs without having to write up a formal press release,” says Fricchione.

Graziani finds that Twitter has more of a niche audience, but one where “a slightly more politically active voter is found,” she says. Instagram on the other hand is “perfect for branding and telling the story of the candidate.”

When it comes to location-targeting capabilities, there’s no common consensus on which is the supreme platform. Harris has found that Twitter and Instagram “provide the best data available for the campaigns location-targeting abilities;” while Graziani says, “You’re much more likely to get a location-specific audience on Facebook, but an ideology-based audience on Twitter.”

What is agreed upon is that these platforms are becoming increasingly used as tools to effectively target voters. Still, none of these platforms are nearly as mighty an advertising means as television, which comes as no surprise. But just because Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not as widely used as TV, that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable. They might even emerge as the more relevant mediums.

“The viewing area for most television stations spans far outside the municipal boundaries for most local elections,” Graziani says. “The ad is being viewed by people who can’t even vote in the race much of the time.” What’s the point of reaching people in places that don’t count? What’s more, television doesn’t have a built-in aspect for debate. Social media, with its feisty comment sections and share capacities, was practically made for politics.

“The biggest benefit of social media is that it is not just one direction,” says Harris. “Conversations and engagement can happen on social that cannot happen on TV. Social media can be one to many or one to one and the benefit of a multi-dimensional medium is the extended reach and influence of the campaign. Local influencers can continue to spread the messages and amplify the campaign’s effectiveness. When used properly, social media campaigns are more cost effective than TV.”

Nicole Spector is a contributor to Street Fight.