Social media arms race needs to begin now for 2020
© Greg Nash

Presidential candidates need to spend years building support from voters, raising money for their campaign coffers, and recruiting talented staff. Now candidates have another task for the 2020 election — they will need to create a social media war machine, and there is not a moment to waste.

It was revolutionary when Barack Obama used social media to help propel him into the White House in 2008. He then solidified that precedent in 2012 when he invested in social media as a campaign strategy to protect his incumbency. Donald Trump took it to a new level in 2016 when he brilliantly leveraged Twitter to earn free media attention and drive the news cycle.

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If it is not clear yet, here it is spelled out: To become president, a candidate must invest time, money, and human capital into their social media strategy. For the next presidential candidates, they will be facing President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE, who has created the most powerful social media presence politics has ever seen.

 

This means potential contenders do not have the luxury of waiting out the next two or three years before committing to build a formidable social media operation. They need to find and hire the most talented social strategists in the market. And they need to do it today. Social media must become a priority for campaigns, not just an afterthought to TV commercials and rallies.

Here’s the reality: if social media becomes one of the last aspects a 2020 campaigner devotes his or her attention to, Trump will win the media battle, which will bring him closer to being elected president for another term.

Whoever challenges Trump is already at a major disadvantage when it comes to battling him in the social ring. If the effort is not made now to find a way to compete with Trump on social, then money, name recognition, and articulated policy proposals will not be enough to win — as witnessed by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Roger Stone invokes gag order in new fundraiser MORE’s defeat.

There’s another piece to this equation that makes it difficult for the next challenger — the future-candidate must be using social media now in a strategic way. It takes time to build a social media infrastructure; it even did for Trump.

Part of having an effective social strategy is looking at what has been working for others, as well as finding new ways to reach audiences effectively. For example, if politicians, especially liberal ones, want to energize the youth vote, Facebook and Twitter may no longer be the best way to do that. As of this writing,  Snapchat is the new frontier for that.

However, there is no case study that is a gold standard on how to use Snapchat in a campaign. So if a candidate wants to tap into Snapchat’s potential, they must start strategizing and executing this year.

The other side to this is that Trump should not be caught flat-footed either. What worked well once may not have the same impact four years later. Especially if the nation and the news media are hit with social media fatigue by Trump.

If Trump is no longer able to command the media’s and voters’ attention with his social channels because the nation has become desensitized to his provocative posts, perhaps he will not be able to command the same media attention as he did during his last campaign. So it would be wise for Trump to look at new ways to use his social influence, so that he can diversify his approach to communicating.

In essence, the most recent campaigns in the social media era demonstrated that social media can no longer be put in its own silo. It has to become a pillar of a campaign’s general media and outreach strategy. As the influence of traditional forms of media, such as TV and radio, continue to decline, more resources must be allocated toward a digital strategy.

If candidates act now, there is still enough time left to build a formidable social media presence.

But there is not that much time left.

Adam Chiara is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamChiara.


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