Social Media Hashtags Become a Political Weapon of Choice

by politicalthing

This blog was originally authored by me and published on the Radian6 website on May 22, 2012. I’m posting it here for posterity.

Twitter hashtags have become the political operative’s weapon of choice at this early stage of the US Presidential election cycle.

Twitter is already used by politicians and partisans largely as a means of sniping at one another, but lately there has been a shift in the way politicians and political operatives are using the social media platform.

The trend now involves the use of increasingly creative hashtags from both the Democrats and the Republicans taking direct aim at each other’s positions on policy.

#DontDoubleMyRate vs. #NotFunny

The political hashtags that have been coming from the Democrats and Republicans reduce complex issues into pithy slogans that will resonate with American voters. The prize? Having that haghtag enter the mainstream political conversation by being picked up on by major media outlets.

Some recent examples of this phenomenon include the Obama campaign’s #DontDoubleMyRate hashtag and the Romney campaign’s #NotFunny hashtag.

#DontDoubleMyRate is the hashtag being used by the President and the Democratic members of Congress to put pressure on their Republican counterparts and oppose the doubling of interest rates on student loans after July 1. In a speech to the University of California, Obama encouraged his audience to use the hashtag to spread the Democratic message.

After President Obama’s recent appearances on the Jimmy Fallon Show and at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the Romney campaign started its own hashtag, #NotFunny. The campaign suggested that the President was spending too much time cracking jokes and not enough time on economic issues.

Each of these examples became trending topics on Twitter and were picked up by the mainstream media. Let’s take a look at how political communication shops can monitor hashtags and leverage this data to extend their life.

Monitoring Your Hashtags

(Before we look at monitoring hashtags, it’s worth noting that the data returned may appear to favor the President’s hashtag. The point is not to show that the President’s hashtag has more mentions then the Republican National Committee’s. Rather, it is to demonstrate that in both cases, social media monitoring can be used to measure the success of a hashtag campaign as compared to previous campaigns.)

#DontDoubleMyRate

When President Obama urged students to take to Twitter to voice their opposition to a hike in interest fees on student loans at the University of California, they followed the Commander-in-Chief’s instructions.

Based on the trend graph you can see that the initial #DontDoubleMyRate campaign took off. Within minutes of the President’s comments, his official Twitter account sent the word, out as did the official White House and Democratic Party Twitter accounts.

This trend graph is instructive because it demonstrates how hashtags can have new life breathed into them. After the initial spike (17,938 mentions), the #DontDoubleMyRate hashtag started to lose its vigor. On May 8th, there was another smaller spike when the president combined the hashtag (featured above) with a call to action.

#NotFunny

The #NotFunny campaign was started by the Republican National Committee in response to appearances made by President Obama on the Jimmy Fallon Show and the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The goal of the campaign was to communicate that the President was out of touch with what matters to the electorate.

The trend graph shows that the #NotFunny hashtag took off on social media as well. It generated enough tweets to trend in the United States and made it into the mainstream media. Despite the smaller numbers, the hashtag was still a success.  Once the initial peak was over (1, 116 mentions) the hashtag mentions fell off sharply. The smaller peaks around May 11 were the result of an advocacy organization attempting to co-opt the hashtag for their own purposes.

It’s also worth noting that the #NotFunny hashtag is somewhat more generic then the #DontDoubleMyRate hashtag. From the perspective of political messaging the #NotFunny hashtag was a rhetorical spear that hit it’s mark among partisans and the mainstream media covering politics. The initial spike was heavily focused on the Republican message track but after that the hashtag becomes muddled with other unrelated conversations from people using the hashtag for their own non-political purposes. When landing on a hashtag it’s best to try to land on something more specific.

Content Marketing and Political Campaigns

Being able to monitor the progress of a hashtag campaign allows communication shops to plan for content. Yes, a creative hashtag that makes it into the mainstream media is a great return on investment for a news cycle. What would happen if political parties began to extend the life of the hashtag campaign? What would this look like?

The approach is quite simple. Once a message track has been settled on, and before the initial tweet goes out, some time should be spent on producing online content – videos, blogs, infographics, etc. – to be launched when the online mentions start to sag. Maybe the mainstream media has picked up on the hashtag, reported it, and moved on, but that’s the traditional news cycle not the social news cycle.

As long as new and relevant information is being produced and being shared, there is political hay to be made.

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