From “Yes We Can” to No You Didn’t; A Cautionary Lesson in Social Media

President Barack Obama’s use of social media has seen its ups and downs. Back in 2008 his social media savvy helped propel him into the Oval Office. His use of technology was instrumental in his campaign, and it is looked at as the blueprint for how campaigns should be run in the Web 2.0 world. Many social media books use his historic campaign as an example or case study of an effective social media strategy.

Now that he’s in office, however, there is significant room for improvement in his social media activity. First of all, after the election, his social accounts lost their personal touch and turned into more of a broadcast medium managed by his staff. As his Twitter profile notes, only Tweets marked BO are coming directly from the Commander in Chief. So engaging, it is not. While I wouldn’t expect the President to be Tweeting away, his staff should have kept up an engagement level similar to large corporations.

In the middle of the federal debt ceiling negotiations, the President reengaged his followers, asking them to Tweet to members of the Republican Party asking them for compromise. His account then Tweeted out the handles of members of the GOP. Instead of celebration and vigor from his base, Obama’s Tweets were met with mixed results.

As he had hoped, members of Congress were bombarded with Tweets on behalf of the President with #compromise. Unfortunately many of these Tweets came from members of the community well outside of each Congressman’s districts. There was an unexpected backlash – it was estimated that the President lost between 36,00040,000 followers on Twitter due to the call to action, while many republicans saw modest growth.

While many companies would be delighted to have as many followers as the President lost, the loss was incremental to the President who still boasts over 9.5 million followers. The Tweets and subsequent diminished follower count are something that businesses can learn from in the social media space. Below are the three key examples that brands should keep in mind:

There is no off-switch – Unlike many marketing channels, social media has no off switch. It is important to keep in mind that once you start in the space it is something you can’t stop. Once you set expectations for your community you need to keep them up.  Turning back or turning it off is not an option and trying to reactivate a base is something that cannot be done overnight.

Zero to Promo in 140 characters – When engaging in the social Web, you need to know your audience. What they expect of you and what they act upon are two of the biggest things to keep in mind. Obama’s Twitter account was more of a news resource than call to action for his agenda. So when he tweeted out to his followers to put pressure on Republican lawmakers, many saw it as spam. While changes are good in the social space, drastic changes can lead to turning off an audience as was seen in the drop in followers for Obama.

Don’t bait your competition – It’s a fundamental public relations rule that one of the worst things to do in an interview is to talk about your competition in a negative light. Not only does it help open the door for them to get inserted in the story. The same holds true in social media. By pointing out flaws in his rival party, Obama allowed the Republicans to insert their point of view into the conversation and point out flaws in the Democrats talking points. Would you want to do that to your competitor?

What do you think of the whole situation? Would you have advised Obama to take politics to the social Web in the manner that he did? Or would you have done something different?

When commenting on this post, please remember that it  is strictly a commentary on President Obama’s social media activity, not a critique or analysis of his policies. If any company had looked to reengage a fan base and lost ~40,000 followers, what would you say? So please keep that in mind. In other words please play nice – Thanks.

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