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[BackChannel] 2013: The Year of the Jilted Tweep?

BY Edward Erikson and Matthew MacWilliams | Friday, February 8 2013

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Edward Erikson is a senior associate at MacWilliams Sanders Communication and a teaching associate at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Matthew MacWilliams is a founding partner at MacWilliams Sanders Communication.

Imagine you go on a really great date with someone, but they wait three months before they call you back for a second date. What do you think are the odds that you’d be happy to hear from them? When candidates go dark on their Twitter accounts for months immediately after getting reelected, that is exactly what they are doing to their tweeps.

While 2012 will be remembered as the year of the tweet, 2013 may be remembered at the year of the jilted political tweep. In January, we analyzed candidate Twitter accounts for 33 of the most contested House races and found something a little unusual: after the election, most winning candidates stopped tweeting. 24 out of 33 of the winners went dark after November 7 – meaning that they tweeted two times or less between November 7 and January 16, 2013.

Nearly every local, state and federal candidate had an active Twitter presence in 2012. And it’s no surprise. Twitter is currently the fastest growing social network on the web: 32% of all internet users have a Twitter account; there are 140 million active users and 62% of those users are between 18 and 34.

But the fact that candidates dropped their tweeps immediately after the election results were tallied reveals that campaigns still have a lot to learn about social media. Our analysis of the jilted tweeps suggests that many campaigns still see social media as a traditional campaign communication outlet — a unidirectional channel to flood targets with messages that generate a transactional Election Day sale. But social media isn’t about transactional relationships, it’s about community. And it’s about engaging and grooming Twitter super users.

Campaigns depend on super-users to drive their messages throughout the course of an election. Super users are select and coveted tweeps with large followings and a very active Twitter presence. Super-users understand social media and are embedded in the community. They recognize fellow community members as well as impostors. A transactional Twitter strategy not only prevents campaigns from maximizing social media opportunities, it may also create a blowback with super users that could harm candidates in the next election. If super users feel jilted after the election, they may be less likely to take action when the next campaign heats up and may even call a campaign out on social media.

The last two election cycles have shown that social media, especially Facebook, can increase voter turnout and election outcomes. While it has yet to be seen whether or not Twitter had a measurable impact on congressional races, the rapid growth of active users suggests that it could become an essential tool to cultivate support networks, mobilize voters, and win elections. When campaigns inevitably return to Twitter, they should reevaluate the way they think about social media. After all: jilt me once shame on you, jilt me twice, shame on me.