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It used to be that political campaigning involved actually getting out on the road and meeting your constituents face-to-face. It involved hobnobbing with everyone from the social elite to the average citizen, and drumming up support by your presence alone. And don’t get me wrong – that form of campaigning is still quite valid, and still very important.

At the same time, however, it’s been supplanted, as many things have, by social media.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for campaigns and political advertisers to reach audiences through traditional methods,” Croft Media/Digital CEO Brian Donahue explained to the LA Times. “The most rapid growth is in digital and social media. It has been extremely effective.”

There’s a very simple reason for that. As is the case with business-to-consumer marketing, people are increasingly shifting to social media where political engagement is concerned. Consider, for example, that according to a 2014 study by Pew Research, the percentage of registered voters who follow political figures on social networks has doubled to 16%.

That number might not seem impressive at first – until you consider that those are just the people who actively engage with politics. They’re the men and women who directly support their candidates; the folks you see at political rallies and fundraisers. That number doesn’t include the majority of voters, included the coveted millennial demographic.

And you can bet that if something a politician says or does goes viral, those other voters will see it, and their opinions will change as a result.

Guarding Against Gaffes Going Social

“Seeing a politician doing or saying something stupid [is] infinitely more powerful than reading about the stupid thing they said or did,” writes Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. “We are a visual culture; we like to SEE things to truly understand them (or to be truly offended or impressed by them). YouTube [has] made that possible for every American with an Internet connection or phone.”

“Suddenly,” he continues, “every moment of a politician’s life becomes fair game to be recorded and shared. Avoiding a “YouTube moment” [has become] part of the political vernacular. And politicians have become a lot more guided.”

The issue, of course, is that there’s no way to control this exposure. The best thing candidates can do – aside from hoping that their most embarrassing moments don’t wind up as viral videos – is to embrace social media as their constituents have, and use it as a platform to disperse their political narrative. And that’s where the good news comes in:

Social networks are probably the most powerful political tools ever created.

“Why sit down with, say, The Washington Post, to get a specific message out — and, in so doing, subject yourself to a bunch of questions you don’t want to answer — when you could simply record a video making the same point sans the questions and push it out to your followers?” Asks Cillizza. “The Obama White House took — and continues to take — that insight to its logical extreme, using YouTube as a way to cut the middleman (the media) out almost entirely.”

The Political Power of Going Social

Of course, it’s not just a matter of sending a few political messages. As in the business world, the most powerful aspect of social media is that it allows your business to connect and converse with voters in a way you never have before. It gives you a direct line to the people who hold the future of your political career in their hands.

And it also lets you gain an unprecedented degree of insight into how they think, behave, and engage with your position.

“It’s basically going from yelling at people to listening to people,” NationBuilder’s organizer of US Politics, Will Conway, told NPR. According to Conway, political campaigns have, in the past, primarily made use of static data – demographic details such as age, income level, and nationality. Now, however, there’s a new type of data on the rise, known as engagement data.

“If [a voter] subscribes to Field & Stream and he drives a Ford F-150, there’s a high percentage chance that he’s a veteran,” said Conway. “The way a campaign has a conversation is infinitely different than the way it was, even in the 2014 cycle.”

This connectivity offers other benefits, as well – real-time data on political opponents, 

Targeted Conversation

Facebook and Twitter are, for their part, aware of their potential as political powerhouses. In light of that, each network has taken its own steps to become more attractive to candidates – up to and including creating a team of dedicated political staff. Twitter has latched on to its position as a news platform, while Facebook is focused on the scale and reach it offers.

There are others, as well – Snapchat stands positioned to completely shake up the 2016 elections with realtime coverage, while Instagram and Flickr also have their part in driving political interest and engagement. And politicians are coming up with a wide array of methods to tap into social networks as well – Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, for example, writes for list site Buzzfeed, which receives 175 million monthly unique visitors, 75% of which come from social media.

Food for thought, isn’t it?

Closing Thoughts – Don’t Count Out the Old-School Just Yet

Now at this point, it’s worth mentioning that one shouldn’t become distracted by the shininess and ‘newness’ of social media. There is, after all, mounting evidence that, to ensure the greatest chance of success, one needs to split their focus between traditional media and new media. Consider, for example, that the 2012 Obama campaign took in 90% of its online campaign contributions through email.

“We’ve not reached a day and age where traditional forms of media and communications have been eliminated. We can’t just run an online media campaign. Facebook is not going to cut it, we are still going to run TV ads,” Dayton Campaign Manager Katharine Tinucci told The Minnesota Post. “But are you going to get a chance to see those online and share them with your friends? Absolutely.”