The Message Matters More Than The Medium

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I noticed an article on Twitter on Liberal Party of Canada leadership candidate Justin Trudeau and his “extensive” use of social media. The article goes on to say:

Trudeau has over 180,000 followers and over 66,000 fans on Facebook. According to politwitter.ca, a web site that collects data on the social media interactions of politicians in Canada, Trudeau is one of the best users of social media presence which may help him secure the youth vote.

Now, I’m not going to pick on the author, Niagara College student-journalist Jeff Johnson. In fact, Mr. Johnson is merely the latest journalist to opine that social media’s primary function is to secure to the “youth vote”. It serves all of our best interests to debunk this myth and focus on the real value social media can bring to a campaign.

A solid majority (73%) of “youth” (14-25 for these purposes) have a profile on at least one social network. According to one survey, while Facebook is still a big player, Tumblr is used more by youth than Facebook – a platform most politicians (including Justin Trudeau) don’t have a presence on. Interestingly, Twitter is less popular, with slightly more than 20% of 13-18 year olds and less than 20% of 19-25 year olds using the microblogging platform. More teens are on MySpace.

So yes, the 14-25 year old demographic have a social networking presence. But that doesn’t mean they are tied to their Facebook feed. In fact, a Rogers survey found that 94% of youth told them that texting is their primary activity on their phone. 68% text daily, while only 51% visit social networking sites each day. Only 11% post a tweet each day.

For political campaigns, what you say is more important than merely where you say it.

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But the story doesn’t stop there. When asked how they prefer to communicate, 44% said they prefer face-to-face interaction, followed by texting (33%). Only 7% named social networks as their preferred method of communication. Only 6% of teens say they use email on a daily basis and 39% say they never use email.

So while you may find young voters on social networking sites, that may not be the best place to engage with them. Like other age groups, youth prefer personal, direct interaction over social networking. In fact, if they want to talk to them, they may want to text them.

But we can’t view all of this in a vacuum. Any campaign, regardless of political stripe, can figure out how to communicate with today’s youth. Marketers have been doing it for decades. Anyone can hold an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit. But it is what they are saying that is the key to success or failure. You need a message that resonates with young adults and a credible messenger.

If the US recent election taught us anything, it is that the youth vote can make a difference. In critical battleground states, Barack Obama dominated (66%) challenger Mitt Romney (36%) with voters 18-29. But these voters were mobilized with a credible message that compelled them to act. Surveys found they were worried primarily about jobs, employment and social equality. They were also favourable to an activist federal government – something Barack Obama spoke about at length.

As Scott Goodstein, an online director for the 2008 Obama campaign, stated: “(Obama’s success) wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the right message and the right messenger.” The same was true in 2012.

While one can debate Justin Trudeau’s policy positions, opposing proportional representation or focusing on youth unemployment will naturally create an interest amongst younger voters; more so than, say, a debate on the F-35 purchase. It also doesn’t hurt that the messenger in this case looks more like a big brother than a father or mother. There aren’t a lot of politicians who will literally step into the ring – and win.

Too often, social media is seen as a playground the young: “if we only show we’re ‘with it’ enough to use social, young voters will support us”. Except the average user of Facebook is 40. Like most things in life and politics, the truth is much more complicated. Like any other demographic, the youth are not a monolithic bloc. If campaigns want to engage younger voters online, they need to first break with a stereotypical view that simply having a Facebook Page offers a direct channel to 14-25 year olds. What you say is more important than merely where you say it.

Social media is an excellent outpost, one that can substantially increase the reach of a campaign. And it is where increasingly more Canadian are spending their time. But you can’t just bolt on social media to an unpopular message (or candidate) and expect floods of votes and engagement. Using social media channels to communicate a compelling message and to engage your target audience to get involved in your campaign is what pays dividends.

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