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The Rise of the Startup Political Candidate


Nick Przybyciel is a graduate degree candidate at Northwestern University’s Medill School, where he is studying the intersection of technology and journalism as an interactive publishing student. You can connect with him on Twitter @nicprz.

It wasn’t too long ago that Simon Ribeiro would have been considered an odd political candidate.

Ribeiro’s de-facto campaign nerve center is inside a classroom at Chicago’s Gordon Tech High School, where he is a rookie teacher, having finally scored a full-time job after six years of substitute teaching. The number of digits in his political war chest could be counted on one hand.

Press conferences? Forget it. He prefers one-on-one Skype sessions with bloggers, citizen journalists and other civic-minded, but non-credentialed commentators. Political ideology? He doesn’t really follow any set dogma, mixing equal parts Ron Paul and Harry Reid into a veritable mash-up of ambitious ideas.

What Ribeiro does have is a website, and a pretty good one, considering his $400 development budget.

“I realized that if I raised $10,000, or if I raise $500, it’s not really going to make much of a difference,” says Ribeiro. “So, instead of wasting my time doing all of these fundraisers and all of this stuff, I’ll just say ‘Look, $10,000 is still a drop in the bucket compared to my competitor, so there’s no sense in even sweating it.’”

Ribeiro, who is hoping to upset the incumbent in Illinois’ 9th congressional district Democratic primary on March 20, is part of a new breed of politically unconnected, but digitally savvy citizens running their own campaigns this election cycle. He embodies the post-partisan — and post-big media — candidate.

Call Ribeiro the “social media candidate.”

Thanks to the explosive growth of social media users since the 2010 elections, especially among the holy grail of political demographics (baby boomers), the playing field may finally be leveled for startup candidates like Ribeiro.

“One of the fastest growing populations on Twitter are those 55-plus,” said Karen Jagoda, president of the E-Voter Institute, a non-partisan organization that promotes the use of online tools in political and advocacy campaigns. “Everyone is more receptive to social media than two years ago.”

The paradigm shift that began with President Obama’s bottom-up, online grassroots campaign in 2008 was only further cemented when the right embraced these tools during the conservative revolution two years later. Social media usage stats justified this shift in tactics. In 2008, only 29% of McCain voters were active users of social networking sites, compared to 44% of Obama supporters.

Fast-forward two years, and a Pew Internet & American Life Project report found that Republicans and Democrats used social media to gather or share political information at roughly equal rates in the midterm election cycle.

This shows that anyone — no matter his age or party affiliation — can launch a do-it-yourself, online-based campaign to reach his target audience.

“Online media gives those with little name recognition the ability to get into the game,” says Jagod. “There’s not a guarantee that money will follow, but small contributors with a vested interest in a campaign can build huge grassroots support.”

It’s not just the reach of social media that’s promising for DIY candidates. Digital mediums offer something that linear media can’t: engagement and credibility. A 2011 whitepaper published by SocialVibe found that 94% of social media users of voting age engaged by a political message watched the entire message. Moreover, 39% of these people went on to share that message with an average of 130 online friends.

Go back in time a decade and ask any K Street political consultant whether similar engagement metrics were even remotely possible by utilizing broadcast, mailers or any other traditional outreach tactic, and you would have been laughed out of D.C.

But now, robust interactive strategies are big business. Mega interactive agencies, like Washington D.C.-based Engage, provide consulting and management services for the few who can afford it. Their agency has helped brand and create digital strategies for, among others, MTV reality TV star Sean Duffy, who won Wisconsin’s 7th District House seat in 2010 thanks in part to a slick online campaign.

However, social media has a leveling quality to it. Candidates without major endorsements or million-dollar interactive agencies at their disposal can still utilize the same tactics as their well-funded competitors. Sure, their websites may not have undergone $50,000 in usability testing, or be loaded with Flash animation, but as long as they adhere to a few basics, they manage to reach their desired audiences with credible messaging.

Jagoda mentioned just a few of these tools that are accessible to anybody: email/SMS lists, an authentic Twitter feed, a Facebook presence with strong calls to action, and videos of campaign stops or behind-the-scenes footage, which can be posted on YouTube or Vimeo. And always, always cross-promote these properties on traditional outreach materials, like flyers or direct mailings.

Ribeiro has already invested in this approach, and it seems to be paying off. “I’m really trying to take advantage of the social networking sites, namely Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, just because I know these are good sites,” says Ribeiro. “It’s free, it’s engaging, and it’s not just ‘Here’s a sound bite. Here’s a slogan.’ It’s really a discussion. It’s an interaction.”

Aside from featuring his social media presence prominently on his campaign site, Ribeiro also plans to work with a filmmaker friend to add other media, such as viral videos. Generating and sharing this type of content is particularly important for the boomer generation.

“The older demographic is not using the social media tools in the same way as the younger is,” says Jagoda. “They’re more likely to view photos and videos than to post [status updates], but also more likely to forward links.”

But even if Ribeiro doesn’t get enough Likes, shares or comments to win this election, he’s ready for another run in 2014. “I’m building inroads to the future and getting my name out there,” he says.

That’s an often-discounted upside to social media – long after the last political ad has aired, candidates that truly get the essence of social media will keep engaging and growing their communities, building momentum for the next go at it.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Pgiam, Flickr, LaMenta3


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