Facebook is taking over politics, but the political consultants don’t know it. Thomas Umstattd Jr., who ran the social media campaign for a Texas supreme court candidate, doesn’t need a focus group to tell him what voters are thinking and wanting. He uses Google’s keywords tool to figure out what people are searching for and what phrase pays off in terms of excitement, donations and, ultimately, votes.
In this conversation with Dave Lieber, Thomas shares insight about how Facebook and social media are changing the way America and the world operates.
Q. Thomas, you are well known for AuthorTechTips.com which was recently named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers. But there’s another side to your many skills as a Ben Franklin of the Internet that fascinates me. You are on the cutting edge of the use of Facebook to advance political causes and, especially candidates. President Obama’s team got a lot of credit for using Facebook during the 2008 campaign. But what you did with Texas Supreme Court candidate Rick Green was remarkable and worth exploring.
You took a candidate with no name recognition and no judicial experience and, well, he won the first GOP primary, beating five candidates who did have judicial experience. Tell me about it.
A. In many ways that race was a perfect storm for social media. While Rick had not been a judge, he had served in the Texas Legislature and is a great public speaker. We knew the establishment would be fully against us and that mainstream media would back them up.
So, we went directly to the people on Facebook. Rick’s Facebook page grew to over 23,000 fans which put him in the top 5 of Texas political figures on both parties. He had more fans than U.S. senators and gubernatorial candidates.
The amount of votes Rick won the primary by was roughly the same as the number of more fans he had than the next guy in the race.
Q. What was the biggest challenge starting a Facebook campaign?
A. Fighting the stereotype that Facebook is just for college kids who don’t vote. I remember sitting in our first strategy meeting with two other experienced campaigners whose answer to my ideas was “voters are not on Facebook.” They said, “Facebook is a waste of time.”
This myth was true in 2007. This made it hard to dispel. Now Facebook has more users than the entire population of the United States. Most everyone is now on Facebook. And if they engage you on Facebook they tend to talk about you on Facebook which can create a frenzy of free attention. I had to fight for budget and attention, but it wasn’t long before the people on Facebook spoke for themselves. Rick saw the potential, and we refocused on Facebook.
Q. After Green won the primary, he was forced into a runoff against Debra Lehrmann, a local judge in Tarrant County with no statewide experience. And he was absolutely killed by the mainstream media (of which, as a Star-Telegram columnist, I’m a part of.) Yet he still only lost by 52 to 48 percent statewide. He was blasted for having been in an altercation when he was a member of the state House of Representatives and how he is a religious speaker. How did he come so close?
A. Not only did Lehrmann have the media in her corner she had the big money, too. She outspent us 5-to1. It seemed like every law firm in the state threw money at Lehrmann as fast as they could. They were willing to pay big bucks to keep insiders on the court.
But with all this spending, Lehrmann still made very little inroads online. The people who went online to research the repetitious accusations by the press generally concluded that they were baseless or irrelevant. But we still live in a country where people believe what they read in the paper. They don’t fact check the fact checkers.
We are at a turning point in the media influence. Right now, the mainstream media is almost tied with social media. When social media is done well candidates have to spend a lot of money to drown it out. You can’t just rely on the press like in the olden days.
Q. Can you tell me a little more detail about how you used Facebook in the campaign? How did you respond to fans?
A. One of our goals as a campaign was to respond to as many fans as possible. Rick would spend hours on his laptop responding to people on Facebook while a staffer drove him around the state. Driving is a time candidates normally talk on the phone to the big money people. Rick used some of that time to interact with regular folks on Facebook.
We also used Facebook ads to reach out to new people. This was a key component of our strategy. Facebook ads are far more effective than most people think.
Q. How did you post updates?
A. Each morning we would post an endorsement or a quote from a Founding Father on Facebook. Then in the afternoons Rick would typically post an update from the trail or a photo. Photos of his kids turned out to be super popular.
We would also occasionally ask people to suggest his page to friends or to donate.
Q. What was Green’s role in the Facebook campaign?
Rick posted all of the replies and many of the posts. His staff ran the ads and designed the page. We collated the endorsements and posted them in the mornings.
Q. How did you use Facebook ads for early voting? And in other ways?
Facebook allows you to advertise to your existing fans. So, it would cost us a few hundred dollars to remind 20,000 fans to vote for Rick. This is the cheapest get-out-the-vote tool on the market. Plus many of those fans would send status updates reminding their friends to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Texas saw these reminders.
Q. Another area where you broke new ground was with Facebook Ads to test words and phrases before using them. You said, “I don’t need a focus group” because you used this tool.
A. In politics, it is easy to get caught up in jargon no one understands. Rick is a “constructionist,” which means he interprets the law as the authors of the law wanted it interpreted. This is a common conservative judicial philosophy.
We needed to know if we could use the term “constructivist” in our campaign communications. So, we put together a series of ads testing the word “constructionist.” After a few days and about $50, it was clear that most people don’t know what a constructionist is. After that, we stopped using the word and used other words instead.
To bring in a focus group to do these tests would have been prohibitively expensive. Using Facebook ads allowed us to test the words on thousands not dozens of people and at a fraction of the cost.
Q. I noticed that Google’s Keyword Search Tool is no longer available as it was to the public. Google says it is revamping it. That means you must be like a fish without water right now?
A. Google keyword tool tells you which words and phrases are popular search terms. You can still use it but you just have to jump through some extra hoops now such as have an adwords account. You can find all the keyword tools at GoogleKeywordTool.com.
Q. What do you see as the future for this kind of social media in American politics? How can the average American get more involved in politics to affect change using the Internet and social media?
A. Two things will need to happen for social media to unseat mainstream media. First, Facebook and other social media outlets will need to continue to grow. More people will need to learn how to share YouTube videos and blog posts on Facebook.
The second thing that needs to happen is the American people will need to use the tools at hand. Having a tool and not using it is the same as not having the tool at all. There is no reason not to go directly to both candidates and see what they have to say. The Internet allows users to hear from both sides directly. Letting the media think for you is a form of intellectual sloth that more and more Americans are rejecting.
We are at a real turning point right now. For a long time Americans have been complacent and even apathetic about politics. They vote for the candidate whose name they recognize. When they vote this way, they let the mainstream media pick the winners. In this new digital world, it is harder for the candidates to hide who they are. I think that in the long run this will improve the caliber of candidate we elect.
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Follow him on Twitter here @ThomasUmstattd.
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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber