By Madeline V. Twomey
Since Election Day, many have asked what we can learn from the past election cycle, what politicking in the age of COVID can teach us about the future of digital campaigning, and what innovations will lead in 2021 and beyond. I believe social media influencers sit at the center of those questions.
After working at the intersection of progressive politics and digital marketing for the past ten years, I was incredibly grateful to have been a member of the digital partnerships teams for both Biden for President and the 59th Presidential Inaugural Committee. These first-of-their-kind teams acted as the innovation hub within the digital team, seeded pro-Biden content onto external channels across the Internet, and undoubtedly changed how progressive politics is done in the future.
While there is no silver bullet to create an effective influencer program — what matters is that it is built to support your organization’s goals — after being a part of the largest influencer strategy in political history, I do have a few lessons learned that I hope will help you create the most powerful program for your organization. Here are my top ten:
1. Influencer Programs = Digital Organizing.
To create strong influencer programs, you need to find where supporters gather online, reach out to them, develop relationships, and organize them into communities.
Once you’ve established these connections, you’ll coach them on story-telling (more on this below), invite them to volunteer, and ask them to share key information with those closest to them.
Sound familiar? It should. An influencer program is a kind of souped-up digital organizing program, and many of the same best practices apply.
2. Relationships are key.
Influencers aren’t a channel that can be turned on and off. They’re partners of your organization and should be treated as such.
Read them into the “why” of your work, develop relationships with the influencers as people first, and create a feedback loop so they can weigh in on what’s working and what’s not. And remember, it’s not all DM’s and emails. During the Biden campaign, I personally had phone calls with 115 micro and mid-tier influencers (over the course of just two weeks!) — and saw higher response rates and more active influencers as a result.
Remember: influencers are expert marketers — their feedback is valuable. Establishing a true partnership with your influencers will help them create better content and make your program more effective as a result.
3. Influencer programs work best when integrated.
Sure, you could create a social media influencer program in a silo, and it could be moderately successful. But, the program will be stronger when it’s integrated into other departments and tactics.
Use influencers as email senders,* in rapid response moments, promote their content as ads,* pitch them to press as surrogates, and invite them to speak at events. Influencers are uniquely both content creators and distribution networks — and the smartest programs will utilize them for both, integrating them into their other creation and distribution workflows.
*With permission (and possibly compensation), of course.
4. Work cross-platform.
Most influencers are on Instagram, but your target audiences might not be. Research your audience, find out where they spend their time and focus your energy on those platforms.
If your target audience is suburban moms, influencers with large presences on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest are likely a good fit. If you need to reach Gen-Z, you can’t ignore TikTok.
Let your audience guide your decision-making, but be prepared to work cross-platform (as many influencers do).
5. Develop content in partnership with influencers.
The adage “content is king” holds true for influencer programs too, and the most compelling content will be tailored to both the platform and the influencer.
For example, if you have an influencer known for photographing and reviewing local restaurants, asking them to speak about why they’re voting for a specific candidate may not align with their brand. Therefore, the content may not resonate with their audience. In these situations, workshop ideas together that accomplish your goal and also feel at home in their content stream.
I often helped influencers craft just how they’d break their silence around partisan politics. Like organizers who train super-volunteers on how to share their story, I helped the influencers craft theirs — encouraging them to lead with their values, issue-areas that matter to them, and personal story, before mentioning Joe Biden to their followers.
When content is authentic to your creators, it’ll have a better chance of engaging their audiences.
6. Provide value to your influencers.
Ensuring the organization/influencer relationship benefits both parties is critical and can go beyond compensation and payment.
What other value can you offer influencers? Free merchandise, access to events, or a “behind the scenes” look at your organization? Influencers not only expect these kinds of perks and offerings, but it also allows them to be better integrated into your organization and campaign, makes them feel like a valued member of the team, and will lead to better content.
At the end of the campaign, we sent a survey to all our influencers to learn about their experience, and not doing enough for our influencers was our most oft-cited criticism. We took the feedback seriously during the inauguration and provided our influencer partners commemorative invitations and “party boxes” as a “thank you” for their support during the campaign. This ended up creating significant free promotional content for Inauguration Day itself, the @bideninaugural channels, and our other live-streamed events.
7. Think outside the box.
One of my favorite tactics from the campaign and inauguration was working directly with artists on Instagram to produce art-as-content. I reached out to artists that had already been outspoken about their support for Joe Biden. For those interested, I put together a menu of possible activations and content ideas — treating them, in a sense, like influencers. This served a few purposes:
- Pro-Biden and voter education content posted to their own channels was valuable in itself, as the average following of this group was significant — about 70K.
- Our Audience Development (aka social) team could repurpose the asset and post it to our own channels.
- With the artists’ permission, we also uploaded the assets to our distribution tool Greenfly for other influencers and celebrities to share on their own channels.
While working with artists may not align with your program’s goals — don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and try something new. It might just pay off.
8. Finding the right influencers for a campaign can be difficult.
Despite the number of commercial databases that exist for finding influencers, none are perfect. We used a combination of CRMs, agency relationships, and manual searches to find partners that were the right fit for us during the campaign and inauguration.
And when you do reach out to target influencers…
9. Be prepared to hear “no.”
Though we saw more celebrities and influencers speaking out about injustice, endorsing candidates, and encouraging voting than ever before, some are still hesitant to potentially alienate their audience and/or lose out on brand deals and the income they rely on.
If an influencer ignores or declines your campaign, don’t take it personally. Perhaps they’re not familiar with your candidate, your issue-area isn’t personally relevant to them, the influencer is booked up, or maybe they just missed your DM (influencers can get hundreds a day!). When identifying target influencers, make sure to curate ~4x your goal.
10. Social media influencers are the future of marketing in politics.
Commercial brands are shifting their marketing dollars from traditional digital advertising to influencers and creators for a reason. Consumers are getting smarter about digital advertising and pickier about the content they consume. In politics, advertising bans and targeting limitations require us to rethink our playbooks.
And while social media influencers may seem “new,” — they’re the next generation of bloggers campaigns have targeted in years past. Influencers develop communities and relationships with their followers — each follower feeling more like a friend than a stranger on the Internet. Our fearless team leader, Christian Tom, and the rest of the Biden White House are already continuing to utilize influencers as ambassadors to galvanize public opinion to support the administration’s various policies.
Despite the operational challenges that remain, I expect to see more influencers involved in politics and political organizations would be smart to invest in influencers in 2021, 2022, and beyond — and I’ll be thrilled when they do.
The influencer teams at Biden for President and the 59th Presidential Inaugural Committee were: Lorraine Carlucci, Maha Ghandour, Katy Rose Glickman, Nick Kitchel, Whitney Milam, Amelia Montooth, and the author: Madeline V. Twomey.
Madeline V. Twomey is a campaign veteran and seasoned digital communications professional. She runs Rufus And Mane, a boutique consulting firm for progressive organizations and funders.