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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  • Anonymous

    Hey Jeff. Here’s what I think on the whole #compromise deal. The number of followers someone has doesn’t necessarily matter. Most likely the make-up of his followers is highly diverse. That said, I can’t know for sure if the follower loss was actually a bad thing. Followers who opted out may have been opposers who followed him just to see what what was being said or fickle followers who had actually been considering opting out and the #compromise tweet-off sealed the deal. Until we learn, I hesitate to call the loss a bad thing. Also, the desired effect has to be considered. Was the effect achieved? I don’t know. But if it was, can we call it a failure just because some followers were lost? All questions we need answers to.

    • Anonymous

      @joelfortner03:disqus  a candidate his followers helped elect him. As the President his follower base changed to including all citizens of the country after all he is the Commander in Chief. The backlash of spam and getting congressmen getting flooded with messages outside their serving area can be looked at similar to smear campaigns. If it were a bipartisan effort, he would have asked to tweet both sides of congress. But I digress, the point of this post was to show why social is something that can’t be turned on and off. When you move from a conversational medium to more of a broadcast medium, there is a disconnect when you try to reactivate the base to a grassroots effort. 

      Also if a company had done this and not the President, what would you say?

      • To your point, I agree with you that consistency of use is important. I’d still love to know exactly why people bailed.  As a candidate, he inspired people.  He moved them with an old message (change) packaged in a new way.  I wonder if some people left because they don’t like politics, especially in their social circles, and came to expect something different from him rather than something that felt too much like typical politics.  Perhaps the social strategy fails when it meets politics and succeeds when it rides on inspiration?  Regarding your question, it depends.  Perception of business is segmented in the U.S.  Your average small business, which is held in high regard, could be more successful with this exact approach where the average big business, which overall isn’t perceived favorably, would probably come off as a bully and suffer the consequences. 

        • Anonymous

          Where are you pulling the SMB perceptions as compared to big businesses? Data or gut feeling?

          In all honesty if any business did a campaign to have 40K people Opt-Out is an issue.

          • Anonymous

            Data.  Most recently, Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions poll.  Small biz comes in 2nd behind the millitary with Big Business coming in at 3rd to last edging out HMOs and Congress.  There are more sources available, too.  Here’s a link to the Gallup poll: 

            On the numbers, it was less than half a percent loss.  =)  It’s an issue but not a big one in my view.

          • Anonymous

            Will look at the research data there. In terms of a drop of 40K is large no matter who you are. Would you be as forgiving say if it were Apple, Dell or Ford taking this drop on a campaign?

          • Anonymous

            I would be because less than half a percent isn’t a big deal in my mind, especially when compared to how many didn’t opt-put, more than 8 to 9 million, which is important as well.  Then it’s important to know how many went on to tweet those elected officials.  At the end of the day, I just think it helps to factor in all of these details.  I’m sure though the Obama camp did or is trying to figure out exactly what caused the follower drop so as not to repeat it. 

          • Anonymous

            Let’s take the pure numbers out of it for a second and look at what they are for a second. The 40K represent people not a commodity. 40K of which in the President’s case are potential voters and to a company potential customers. So ignoring the drop and noting that it is insignificant to me is just poor planning and showing a lack of caring or understanding for the community.

          • Your point here is well taken and the overall point you make with your post is also well taken. I don’t think the drop of followers is something to ignore at all, just to keep in perspective, which through our back and forth here we’ve done with my nerdy numbers and your human touch. =)  I think this case study and others like it are important for organizations to be aware of, but I don’t think this case study applies to every organization. Organizations are different, audience/market expectations differ, engagement expectations are different and so on.  That said, again, it’s something to be cautious of and of course something I’d advise people to avoid. 

  • All good points, Jeff. I think your first one is key though and plays nicely into number three. Why would you gain all these followers, then just lay semi-dormant? It’s a bad business and marketing strategy. Keep your base or followers engaged that way they don’t feel used. This connects right to the baiting point because in an communications strategy, doing a “he said, she said” game is only going to rile up opposition.

  • You’re so right! When POTUS won, it was a PR and social media case study on how to run an effective integrated communications campaign. The lack of sincere communication since then is now a case study of what NOT to do after a successful campaign. Many feel used.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment Joe. It is unfortunate in a way, but to be honest it is a great lesson for companies. You can’t forget your community and always think they will be there for you.

  • Jeff, this is really such an interesting case, and I do think much of the same social media structure and strategy is in place for both politics and business. I am interested in this notion of consistency in your second point. Obama’s Twitter feed is a place of information, but I do think it’s still an appropriate place for a call to action. This is perhaps a subtle difference between politics and business. I think you have more room to make a direct call in politics than you do in business. Weren’t most of his follower losses really because their feeds were overwhelmed? That just seems foolish. Rather than tweeting out every handle, how about a link to a document? A little less direct, and your “conversion” would be less in theory because of the extra steps, but it makes more practical sense and, no doubt, showcases a competency in using social media beyond garnering sheer followers (which any president or presidential hopeful should have no trouble doing). So I rather think it’s more this operational snafu than a change in content.