Polls are currently indicating a statistical dead heat for US Senate in Massachusetts. Republican State Senator Scott Brown is shocking pundits, and the nation, by offering a robust challenge to Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race to fill the seat vacated by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The special election is scheduled for Tuesday, January 19, 2010.
Just two months ago, this campaign was a typical Massachusetts landslide in the making. Coakley was ahead by 30 points and running a safe, low profile “front-runner” campaign. The national GOP and traditional media had written Scott Brown off as another valiant casualty of “Blue State” inevitability. The Coakley team and its allies were quite content to let the usual process take its course. Everything lined up as it almost always does in the Democratic stronghold called Massachusetts.
Much has been written recently about the significance of this election. If Brown wins, he represents the 41st vote in the US Senate–a vote which will end the filibuster-proof majority and force bipartisan debate on important legislation like health care reform. If Brown simply does well, he motivates conservatives around the country, even in historically liberal districts, to seek vacant seats and oppose Democratic incumbents. Some have called this race a referendum on “Obamacare”. Others, including moderate Democrats, see it as a chance to send a message to the far left that, well, they’ve gone way too far in that direction. I will not address these issues here, but I wanted to include them for contextual purposes.
What has changed in the last 60 Days?
The importance of this race has been clear since the passing of Senator Kennedy. Brown and Coakley have always been favored to be the nominees of their respective parties. A Brown victory would always have produced the aforementioned effect. So what started happening two months ago to turn the political tides? Three things: social media, viability and money. I contend that the former created the possibility of the latter two.
Social Media Creates a Buzz
Supporters of Scott Brown, the so-called “Brown Brigade”, were not content to sit back and watch another Democratic drubbing of a conservative candidate. They believed in Senator Brown and saw the political opportunity at hand. In addition to traditional campaign methods–phone calls, lit drops, bumper stickers and the like–they enthusiastically embraced social media as a marketing tool. They hit Facebook, Twitter, Ning, LinkedIn and YouTube. They wrote blogs and commented on other people’s posts. When they saw a relevant news story on line, they made their opinions known. Instead of telling two friends to support Scott Brown, they told two friends with 1000 followers each on Twitter. Those people liked the message and shared it with their followers. Before long, the entire nation began to notice and discuss the campaign. It was no longer just about Massachusetts–if Scott Brown were remotely viable, this could impact everyone!
A Brown supporter, (who had been actively sharing content and commentary), was thrilled to see some interest developing. He was frustrated, however, that volunteer support, national media exposure and donations were not increasing quickly enough to make a very short–and clearly “up hill”– special election campaign viable. Without viability, who would bother to get involved or write a check?
That individual decided to bolster the social media efforts of the campaign team by creating a Twitter hashtag (a way to categorize content) called #41stVote. Together with blog engagement, personal outreach to influential “tweeters” and direct communication with main stream journalists, this #41stVote concept quickly caught on as a highly focused and compelling value proposition. Within days of its creation, interest swelled and the Brown message started to “go viral”. When that happened, money, volunteers and positive commentary escalated dramatically.
Interactions related to the #41stVote and associated social media devices increased donations to such an extent that substantial blocks of traditional “media buys” were made possible. TV and radio exposure landed additional support, which in turn led to better poll numbers. When Rasmussen and other polling companies announced that the race was within single digits, viability had been achieved and cash poured into the campaign.
How much cash? Scott Brown’s January 11th, one day, “money bomb” secured $1.3 million! The average donation was only $75–a testament to the grassroots nature of this online campaign.
While the Brown campaign used many social media venues to “broadcast” from the outset, its message only went “viral” after significant engagement, content sharing, value creation and tool utilization. The campaign had to answer the following questions from potential online “partners”:
1. Why should I follow you?
2. Why should I share your message?
3. Why should I write about you?
4. Why should I recommend that others follow you?
5. Why should I make calls on your behalf?
6. Why should I donate to your campaign?
7. Why should I interview you?
8. Why should I care?
Social Media Best Practices–How can we help YOU?
Understanding the needs of voters and potential donors, providing valuable and easily shared content to online supporters and effectively engaging (as opposed to “talking at”) key strategic partners were all critical elements of Brown’s social media success. The #41stVote hashtag provided a unifying theme to these efforts. It also answered many key questions in nine simple characters.
Will social media change America?
Used in combination with the more traditional approaches, social media has emerged as an extremely powerful weapon in the Brown Brigade’s arsenal. Given the importance of this special election, and how the race has been trending recently, Scott Brown’s use of “new marketing” may very well change the course of American history.