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With #40Dollars Push, White House Cracks a Twitter Engagement Code

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, December 21 2011

Trevor Blake / Flickr

Yesterday afternoon, as part of the White House's online push around payroll tax extensions, the administration's digital staff went across platforms to deliver a prompt: No tax cut extension means $40 less per paycheck for a family making $50,000 a year, so, what does $40 mean to you?

The White House digital team then set up ways to highlight answers across platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. While Twitter seems to be the place with the best success and I couldn't find a single YouTube video created according to their specs, the White House is touting the results this morning. In Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen passes along notes from inside the administration:

We have received over 10,000 submissions through a form on Whitehouse.gov, averaging over 2,000 an hour and coming in from every state in the nation. On Twitter, we asked 'What does #40dollars mean to you?' The White House started the hashtag #40dollars. By 4:40 p.m., the hashtag #40dollars was trending on Twitter, not just nationwide, but worldwide.

They're hoping to continue that momentum today with a 3:30 p.m. Twitter chat with Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council.

This is no Bieber Fever level of engagement, although it is enough to get on Twitter's map:

But it does something that is often hard to do, which is drive action online from people who aren't already actively working for one side or the other of the partisan divide in national politics. Individual stories have power — which is why, I assume, the White House also asked for videos, although it doesn't appear that anyone has answered that call — and lending them to the White House in this case is absolutely taking an action on the administration's behalf.

In both style and substance, this push is evocative of the "We Are the 99 Percent" Tumblr that made the case online for Occupy Wall Street in that movement's early going. Twitter alone won't win Washington arguments, but I think the White House's modest traction here is due in part to the marriage of a single idea with a simple symbol. Occupy tied the idea of income inequality with the phrase "99 percent." The White House is linking a tax increase with two $20 bills. The pickup on Twitter here shows that this type of message carries better with a general audience than Deese gamely diving into the particulars of tax policy on a white board.

The lesson it seems like the White House team has learned here is that they can draw out more conversation when they do the work of translating wonkish legislative particulars into demonstrable real-life impact. Learning that lesson has allowed team Obama to notch a win against House Republicans on an issue where both sides are actually in agreement — there's no real argument over whether or not there should be a full-year extension of the cut, just over the particulars. House Republicans, by the way, have been using exactly this principle against the White House on the issue of the economy since the summer, but their push — collecting stories from business owners about the travails of government regulation, and sprinkling them throughout House Republican efforts as Web videos, testimony on the House floor and detailed press releases — hasn't sparked as much interest.