Friends and #trends: The GOP's online opportunities

Just as businesses must be responsive to their customers, political organizations must be in tune to their "customers" — the voters, especially those in the grassroots.

Just as businesses must be responsive to their customers, political organizations must be in tune to their “customers” — the voters, especially those in the grassroots.

Much has changed in the electoral landscape since 2008, but the largest change is how politicians communicate with constituents. Today, politics requires a two-way, year-round conversation, made both possible and necessary by online social networks.

Americans are getting their news, having their conversations, and forming their political opinions online in ways that are common today but were unheard of in the last presidential election cycle. A small example: the ubiquitous “Like” button found on nearly every major website was launched only in 2010.

In a bygone political age - say, 2006 - you could purchase political ads for the morning and evening news that were sure to reach a sizable audience. Today, though, voters increasingly get their political news from the Web. And what they read is often what they view on their social networks. They see what their friends are reading on Facebook or Twitter before visiting news sites — if they even make it that far.

Our task, then, is to deliver our message to supporters on the platforms of their choice and whenever they happen to be online. To be effective, though, requires active engagement with fans and followers. It requires more than simply dropping content into an online repository; it's a two-way conversation.

At the Republican National Committee, we listen. We follow closely the online conversation and then contribute to it. We've built a following based on our values and principles, and we actively cultivate a network of supporters who can take our traditional content — videos, op-eds, statements, and factoids — and share them among their friends and connections. That's significant because the most trusted voice in politics will always be that of a friend or family member.

Over time, we can build trust and relationships, empowering casual readers to become grassroots organizers. A laptop or smartphone equips an armchair activist, and that, in turn, mobilizes voters. Last year, we launched a first-of-its-kind video text messaging system. Subscribers receive exclusive video content directly to their smartphones. An individual can be either offline or overloaded with digital stimuli, but we are still able to grab their attention. Soon, we'll be launching a unique Facebook application and a cutting edge website.

Establishing a well-cultivated digital following has distinct advantages. For example, a well-made ad that would cost thousands to air on TV reaches thousands more viewers at a fraction of the cost online as it is shared and re-shared. And comScore has found that digital advertising, as compared to TV advertising, is much more effective in reaching the Millennial generation, an increasingly influential voting demographic.  Just a few days ago, we launched a rapid response Web video within an hour of the State of the Union address on our YouTube page called “Failed Rhetoric, Failed Record” that was shared and viewed over 500,000 times within 36 hours.

In 2008, 50% of voters voted early in 11 states. In many states this year, we expect a majority of ballots will be cast long before Election Day. No longer can one hope to claim victory in the final 72 hours of a race by gobbling up TV air time. So here again, the opportunities created by social media allow us to meet a new challenge.

The only way to maintain an influential and cost-effective communications operation is by going — and staying — online. With today's trends in mind, the RNC has ensured over the last year that we are neither outpaced by our rivals nor left behind in an evolving digital age. We're ahead of the curve on every front and intend to stay that way.

Sean Spicer is communications director at the Republican National Committee.

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