Social Media, Politics and Vermont

Last year (I love writing that!) I wrote a post calling out our Gov-Elect Peter Shumlin for his lack of continued use of social media tools to provide information to Vermonters on his transition.  The post generated some interesting comments and I owe a response to those who took time to respond: @rnadworny, @johnfmoore and @mjayliebs.  Interestingly enough, no one from the @petershumlin staff responded.

Let me start by highlighting the main gist of the comments I received  — in a nutshell both Rich and Mitch felt that because Vermont is such a rural state and not as many people use social media here, then there is not a big reason to focus on the use of social media during a transition when traditional media channels such as newspaper and TV will do just fine.  I liked John’s point about advocating for “Open Government” or the so-called Government 2.0 — which is an approach that emphasizes transparency and openness in communication. I don’t disagree with any of these gentlemen as their points are valid and make a great deal of sense.

However, my issue is that if a campaign feels they should use social media in a state that is as small as Vermont in order to get elected, then why aren’t they continuing that approach once they do get elected? I believe I know the answer and this post will speculate on that as well as offer a different approach that I believe all politicians and governments will have to explore sooner rather than later.

First, I’d like to address one particular point that Mitch made in his response to my earlier post:

From Mitch: “Drawing an analogy to the business world, the campaign is the marketing process, election is the sale or the close and now we are in customer support mode. Brands only really are interested in engaging on channels where people are engaging with them. It is reactive, maybe wrong, who knows. I follow the #vt and #Vermont hashtags, I have not seen people trying to reach out to Gov elect there, why should the government make more work for itself and open up another channel?”

First of all, as marketers the world over know — it’s a lot cheaper to KEEP customers then get new ones.  What does that have to do with politics?  Well in Vermont, we have only two year terms.  The reality is that our Governor needs to begin campaigning the minute he gets into office — so why let the social channels lay fallow when he could be leveraging and building upon the social base that was created during the election?  Secondly, as a constituent who uses social media I’ve noticed VERY quickly that this Governor is NOT communicating via social media — the team is PUSHING content.  So why should I invest the time if he isn’t?  It’s the classic chicken and egg, cart and horse problem. If the Gov-elect isn’t engaging then why should I?  I write all of this not to be snarky, but to only highlight the challenge of the use of new media tools.

We are no longer in an age where push media is going to have the biggest impact AND consumers are savvy enough to understand that if you are only going to use social channels to solicit money from me, then there is no point in my listening or engaging.

Bottom line:  The Shumlin Administration is making a BIG MISTAKE in not addressing ALL MEDIA CHANNELS with equal importance and in not treating SOCIAL MEDIA as an engagement platform.

Let’s take a look at why:

Trends in social media, mobile and communication technology continue to show an increase in use and are driving change in expectations. As more individuals gain access their expectations on how those tools will support and enhance their lives continues to grow. A recent blog post from Pat Heffernan (@pheffernanvt) of Marketing Partners a local Vermont Marketing firm, about 2010 Internet Trends captures just how important it is for politicians to be thinking carefully and strategically about their approach to social media.  As she writes, “The subject is the massive and rapid change in user expectations. Anyone not paying attention, anyone operating in the same old, same old ways will become irrelevant to their customers.” (read the full post here: http://conversations.marketing-partners.com/2010/06/internet-trends-2010-by-morgan-stanley%E2%80%99s-mary-meeker/)

The countdown to the election begins now. I suspect that the Shumlin campaign jumped on the social media bandwagon because “everyone” is doing it during a campaign.  It’s time to take the lessons of the Obama campaign to heart and not lose any momentum that was gained.  If you stop using social channels to engage with me,  I will no longer follow you or pay attention to you.  Now’s the opportunity to lead and show ways in which a small rural state can leverage social tools to engage, inform and stay connected. Two years is a short time and if you consider that just a few short years ago, no one had heard of Twitter and MySpace was still the biggest social network (that was 2007 folks), technology tools and how people use them will continue to mature. This is not the time to be left behind.

The Future of Politics and Social Media is very interesting. Mashable writer Matt Silverman just posted an interesting article about Four predictions for the future of politics and social media.  In particular he points out much of what both Mitch and Rich stated — many people aren’t using social tools yet — and this isn’t just true in Vermont but it is also true nationwide.  However, more importantly, he writes,The future of the social media politician is not about wild speculation and technological uncertainties. It has everything to do with when and how deeply social media can be absorbed into mainstream culture. We are on track for a tipping point — a JFK/Nixon TV debate moment — when everyone on the political scene will acknowledge that we can never go back to campaigns without social.” He also points out that there will be a shift not just in eyeballs but in dollars spent from traditional TV, Print and Radio to online social tools, “Print and radio ads are not as valuable as TV. TV will no longer be as valuable as interactive media. For politics, this is especially so, as the arena (at its best, anyway) warrants engagement and discussion.” His points are all about the campaign — but they have good value when applied to an Administration that has just been elected.

So yes, Vermont is rural in nature and weekly newspapers and local radio have a great reach. But social media tools are growing in use and adoption — the more value there is for me as a user, the more apt I am to adopt the new communication technologies.  As of June 2010 there was approx. 513,000 Vermonters using the Internet and 200,000 using Facebook. (http://www.internetworldstats.com/unitedstates.htm#VT)  Of course, let’s not forget the amount of money that has been pushed towards helping Vermonter’s gain access to high speed internet access to reach undeserved rural areas. As Sen. Leahy and Sanders wrote, this is a game-changer. In other words, the moon and stars are aligning and while it will take time for all of Vermont to gain access and adopt these tools, the opportunity is now to build up the social infrastructure for the Shumlin Administration.

With all of this in mind, I offer up the following examples of local politicians who are using social media tools and how that use is helping them connect, inform, engage and gain and keep the respect of their constituents … perhaps our Gov. Shumlin could learn something from them.

  • Gov. Cory Booker: Mayor of Newark, NJ: You’d have to be under a rock to not see how this Mayor has leveraged Twitter during the Snownami that hit last week. Follow him and learn how he is helping, connecting and engaging with his constituents using Twitter. @corybooker
  • A slew of Republicans and a Democrat or two: Take a look at the results of this recent Facebook poll that highlighted which politicians are using Facebook in a way individuals find useful: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/posttech/2010/12/palin_republicans_get_high_mar.html.  My personal favorites from this list include: Michigan’s Justin Amash (explaining his votes = big win!), and CA Gov-elect Jerry Brown for doing more than announcing appointments on his Facebook.
  • Rep. Kesha Ram has done an outstanding job of live tweeting, and providing commentary during last year’s session.  I’m looking forward to what she’ll bring this time around. Follow her on twitter at @kesharam.

So here’s to an interesting year in social media and politics.  I look forward to seeing how the Shumlin Administration is going to leverage social media and while I’m disappointed right now, I’m hopeful they will step up their game once they officially get rolling.

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  • Hi Elaine, I like the conversation it is interesting, and I am learning something (always good).

    While conceptually, I would like to see the Shumlin team engage on all channels equally, I would be concerned that this may not be practical. Jumping to a physical world analogy, should Vermont invest in all roads equally, those traveled by 10,000 people per day, same as 10 per day? Of course, this is not a perfect analogy, but might further the conversation.

    Your response to my comment also highlights the growing trend outside of government that engagement is really the merger of marketing and customer service. ‘Don’t just talk to me when I am getting ready to buy…’ Software-as-a-Service vendors are evaluated every month…

    Thanks for the thoughtful response!

    Mitch

  • Hi Elaine, that was a very thorough post on social media and Vermont politics. But actually, you’ve mis-represented your own previous post. I wasn’t responding to the need for social media in Vermont politics; I was responding to your post’s focus that the Shumlin administration should hire a social media community manager. My point wasn’t that they should ignore social media, it was that the people they hired for the top posts should be social media savvy as well as traditionally savvy.

    Patricia Sears is onto something with the e-VT project; it should focus on keeping rural Vermonters connected politically using social media, both locally and in Montpelier.

    • Rich:

      Thanks for the clarification. I believe that one day “media managers” will get there. However, until they do (smile) political staffs will have to have individuals on hand who can focus their efforts on the different communities. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years.

      Elaine

  • Patricia Sears

    Good stuff, Elaine. Thanks for posting. Leadership from the Shumlin Administration on using social media for info Exchange would help with the ‘take rate’ for broadband. This is a goal of the e-VT grants. @NewportVT received an e-VT grant and we are working to increase participatory communication with the Newport City government (great leadership from Mayor Paul Monette), businesses and organizations.

    • Pat: Great to hear of this project and exciting to see what local governments will be able to accomplish with different social media tools.