According to many political campaign consultants, the decision to put political campaign resources into social media is a risky proposition. Whereas investing in television ads, field efforts and other traditional campaign tactics are well within their comfort zone, social media is filled with uncertainty. Critics say it is not that good for fundraising or direct action. And while social media appears to be good for branding and persuasion, the performance data is still limited. This all adds up to an uncertain return on investment.
It is this uncertain return on investment that drives demand for social media in political campaigns. It manifests in two basic forms. When it comes to efforts to improve the performance of a campaign with respect name recognition, fundraising or recruiting volunteers, campaigns are reluctant to devote a lot of resources to social media. When it comes to damage control in the face of a crisis, campaigns jump on the social media bandwagon with a vengeance.
Given what we know about how people make judgments under uncertainty, this pattern should not be surprising. According to extensive research by Amos Tversky, et al., people are risk averse under uncertain conditions in the face of potential gains and they are risk seeking under uncertainty in the face of potential losses. So, by implication, the less certain people are about the ROI for social media, the less likely they will opt to invest in it to improve their campaign position and the more likely they will invest in it to try to counter a crisis.
How do we mitigate the uncertainty associated with social media in order to convince more campaigns to invest in it for making political gains? Ideally, we want to collect enough data to demonstrate empirically that social media can improve name recognition, that it can persuade voters to vote for a candidate, and that it can move public opinion on issue in a favorable direction. Eventually, I predict, we will have no trouble doing that. But to rely on solid data-driven decision making requires that we wait until several years after social media starts to work. We have to face the reality that you cannot have strong data to support a strong ROI claim until the ROI has existed for several years.
This is why change-makers and innovators are always ahead of the curve. They jump into a new strategic paradigm before the data says it is safe to do so. They are risk seeking in the face of uncertainty, while the rest of their competition is playing it safe. And that is how they gain the upper hand.
When it comes to justifying the use of social media for political campaign gains, we must embrace uncertainty in order to gain an advantage. But we can also reduce some of the uncertainty by drawing implications from related research. Specifically, we can draw reassurance that incorporating social media outreach into a multi-channel outreach strategy will strengthen our ROI because research shows multi-channel outreach is more effective than single channel outreach.
One of the reasons multi-channel outreach is more persuasive is due to a phenomenon called source amnesia. Hearing or seeing a message today will be more persuasive if you had heard it before, especially if you do not remember where you heard it before. The phenomenon is so powerful that a message that might have been discounted before due to credibility issues will become more powerful later because you do not remember the original source.
Social media may be one of the greatest vehicles for delivering messages that may lack credibility today, but are remembered and trusted later, ever created. And if the original message was credible, it is all the better. Any message delivered over social media, credible or not, will have the effect to imparting more traction to the same message delivered again through the same or other channels. Put simply, a social media campaign to spread a message should, by implication of extensive psychological research on source amnesia, enhance follow-up outreach via ads (online or offline), email or more social media.
And while we may quibble over the likelihood of a tweet being seen compared to an online ad, there is a knowable equivalence factor between the two. Some number of Twitter impressions is equal in impact to an ad impression (which, when it comes to TV ads, is also somewhat unknowable). And generating tweet impressions can be significantly cheaper than generating ad impressions.
The bottom line is that we know from extensive peer reviewed research that message repetition increases message traction and persuasion. We also know that message repetition over multiple channels increases traction and persuasion even more. By implication, it is difficult to reject the notion that social media must enhance the effectiveness of a multi-channel persuasion campaign. While there may still be some uncertainty about the relative effectiveness of social media, the analysis offered here suggests that 1) there is less uncertainty than you might think, 2) there is value in being an early adopter of tactics yet to have certain impact and 3) the slow pace of innovation in politics is at great odds with the fast pace in the evolution of possible campaign tactics.