The grammar of social media

For a social media presentation I’ve been looking at how different brands use twitter. One of the most revealing comparisons I came across is Hillary Clinton’s campaign vs Barack Obama’s (yes I’m Canadian, but I’m also kind of a US political junkie).

They’re both on twitter, and both use it well – regular updates, often a few times a day, along with calls to action and links to interesting press coverage or videos. Of course I’m guessing neither one of them is actually doing the updating, it’s likely an aide or intern in their campaigns. Which is a shame because the idea of a future POTUS whipping out their phone and saying “hold on, I just HAVE to twitter this” is kind of funny.

But there’s one big difference: if you sign up to follow Barack Obama’s updates, his campaign immediately signs up to follow you. So now he has over 33,000 followerers – and also follows over 33,000 people. Hillary Clinton doesn’t follow anyone – she has 4,000 followerers, and follows 0 people. Now there are clearly some demographic differences there (Clinton supporters tend to be older, Obama supporters tend to be younger, more tech-savvy, and also more loyal and enthusiastic) but I’m guessing that a big part of the difference is explained by the fact that Obama reciprocates the act of following.

It’s a small thing, and I’m sure most people realize that it’s a token gesture: he and his campaign aren’t actually sitting there reading each of our updates. But it’s an important gesture that shows he understands the grammar of social media. Clinton is basically using twitter as another broadcast medium; Obama is using it as a tool for connecting with people on an individual level.

In any social media, there’s an important psychological trigger that happens when someone subscribes to follow your updates – it’s validating, it’s rewarding, it makes people feel in some small way that they matter. In this case it also creates its own word of mouth, because it changes the conversation from “I signed up to follow Hillary Clinton’s updates” to “Barack Obama is following me on Twitter!” – really, which one is someone more likely to say?

Obama’s act of reciprocation also has one other side effect: because twitter shows thumbnail images of the people you follow on your page, Obama’s page now has a huge sidebar of images of people which makes the page feel more grassroots and more like a community. It makes it seem more like you’re joining something.

Does your brand understand the grammar of social media? In another post I’ll share a bit more from my presentation.

Published by jasonoke

Global Client Leader, WPP Married to @meredithoke. I have some kids. I travel. I eat. I internet.

12 thoughts on “The grammar of social media

  1. this is really interesting. just from the snippets you posted it also looks they literally adhere to different grammatical “rules” with hillary using complete sentences and more “I’s” with barack being more informal and using sentence fragments. i’m sure you’ve seen @comcastcares – combating facelessness and poor customer service head on. i posted on this last week in case it helps: http://elgaffney.blogspot.com/2008/05/comcast-is-caringtwittering.html

  2. It took Obama’s camp 4 hours to reciprocate and follow me on Twitter. It took Hilary’s camp 4 months to get around to it a few days ago.

    While Twitter is but a small element of the war machines behind each candidate one can’t help but to wonder if it’s a reflection of how well they are organized overall.

  3. I think it’s unlikely that Mr. Obama knows twitter exists, but I’m sure he interns are working overtime to reach out with this application.

  4. I’m still deliberating if to get on board with this twitter thing or not but from the screenshot of Obama’s profile you posted it seems he is following more people than follow him. That’s kind of cool in itself.

  5. It’s a small thing, and I’m sure most people realize that it’s a token gesture: he and his campaign aren’t actually sitting there reading each of our updates. But it’s an important gesture that shows he understands the grammar of social media. Clinton is basically using twitter as another broadcast medium; Obama is using it as a tool for connecting with people on an individual level.

    Jason – sorry to say that a token gesture is a token gesture
    If people are gullible enough to feel they are now on B’s twitter radar – do we really want them to have the power of a vote?

    Isn’t H being more honest? Isn’t honesty at the core of this newfangled thing called social media? I recognize the psychology and the optics of the thing – just wished people would not spin things without laying out both sides.

    Yes, B is touted by many as being the new social communicator and change agent- replacing the last great communicator (Regan?) and change agent (Kennedy?)

    interesting times.

    BTW, congrats on getting your post picked up by the more massive media

    Miro

  6. great post! my comment is a bit of an echo of what @El Gaffney has already said, but i think it’s worth pointing out. just comparing one ‘tweet’ to another, Hill is self-centered and focused on the ‘me’ aspect, whereas Obama is perfectly PC in writing his blurb about honoring the vets. political beliefs aside, there’s a big difference here – a difference that speaks volumes.

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