Twitter as a micro-targeted mobilization tool

Higher rates of Twitter usage for blacks and for sub/urban dwellers, but neither category is anywhere near as strongly predictive as age. (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project)

Yesterday I mentioned the turnout uncertainty of Barack Obama’s young and black supporters, built at least partly on the perception that their votes aren’t needed to get Obama over the top. These aren’t people who need to be persuaded to vote for Obama, but they do need to be persuaded to vote. We know that simply being asked to vote does a surprisingly good job of getting people to the polls, which suggests that the Obama campaign to target these would-be voters with a GOTV message. Traditionally, this is the domain of the campaign’s ground operation, but is that still the best or only thing to rely on?

The demographic make-up of the “unlikely” supporters makes Twitter a potentially attractive venue in which to build a new kind of targeted messaging strategy. Looking at the most recent available data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (from August 2011, unfortunately), the familiar Twitter usage pattern emerges. Overall usage is about 9.3% of the population — that’s the entire population, not just Internet users, which is the denominator Pew generally uses in their reports. But there’s a clear racial difference, with blacks using Twitter at an 18.4% rate and non-blacks at 8.0%, and an even stronger age relationship. Of those in the 18-24 group (who were mostly not old enough to vote in 2008, keep in mind), 14.4% use Twitter; for 25-34-year-olds, it’s 16.4%, and after that it drops off considerably.

But the big finding for a social messaging campaign is that race and age interact — blacks in those youngest two age groups use Twitter at rates of 33.3% and 22.6%, respectively. Not surprisingly, the division between urban/suburban and rural somewhat mirrors the racial division. The two youngest age groups respectively have 20.3% and 17.2% usage among urban and suburban residents, but just 8.3% and 10.2% among rural residents. Compare this all with Facebook, which sees no race or community type relationships — only age — across its 60% overall usage rate.

The greater prevalence of Twitter in cities suggests something of a geographic bias to its structure, and that’s something that could be leveraged in a GOTV campaign — after all, the “get out” outcome is a pretty key part of such an operation. But its social messaging structure would also be key, allowing the campaign to create starting point messages that could be retweeted and shared throughout a trust-driven social network. Twitter’s differences from Facebook come into play here, as well. Because Twitter is just a message-sharing platform (as opposed to a game/calendar/affinity/etc. platform), it could encourage the spreading of GOTV messages, particularly to individuals who might use it primarily for non-political purposes (e.g., following celebrities or talking with friends).

These messages would be received not by a representative part of the population, but disproportionately by young city-dwellers, meaning they could be targeted with that audience in mind. In fact, once the network is built up, individuals could potentially be targeted with messages tailored either for themselves or to be spread out to their networks. In a way, this approach is the opposite of what they did in 2008 with the site, which facilitated connections within the context of the campaign, and only between those already committed enough to come in and sign up for another social network site. Targeting existing Twitter users and their extended, potentially local networks would bring the campaign to the doorstep of the loosely affiliated voter.

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