What Social Media Strategists can Learn from the Debate

Millions of people tuned in for the first debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. As a nation watched debate coverage, they also participated in an intricately networked and evolving conversation—one that transcended platforms and, perhaps in a few cases, partisan boundaries.

Plenty of people will spend weeks parsing the content of the first Clinton/Trump debate. That’s critical work, and vital to a functioning democracy. At Ignite, we figure that many of you in our audience also spent time evaluating each candidate’s social media efforts. After all, we’ve spent time writing about how to successfully boost your organization’s live events with your social media efforts. Each candidate’s campaign employs bright and savvy social media minds tasked with engaging their audience during an event with a viewership in the millions.

“The adoption of social media appears to have engendered new paradigms of public engagement,” according to the authors of this study on nonprofit social media use. “The analysis reveals there are three key functions of micro-blogging updates—‘information,’ ‘community,’ and ‘action.’”

To us, that makes the debate a perfect opportunity to take a long look at how each campaign used social media before, during, and after a major public event. So, for the purposes of this post, we’re leaving partisan ideas at the door and looking exclusively at social media tactics.

Before the debate: Information

Social media is a critical way to rally your audience’s attention before an event. The official Twitter handles for both Trump and Clinton offered plenty of reminders to tune in, and both used the “#debatenight” hashtag, which brought audiences from both parties together in a social dialogue.

But social media also provides thoughtful and proactive organizations with a chance to give their audience context and background on those issues that matter most.

Campaign teams for both Trump and Clinton used Twitter and Instagram in an attempt to focus their audiences’ concerns on a few specific issues. This sort of approach reminds audience members that an event like a debate is about issues that matter to them. It is a pledge that your organization shares your concerns, and will use an event to explain how you might move towards a shared goal.

An event also provides social media strategists with an opportunity to experiment and engage with audience members in new ways. Ahead of the debate, one of the campaigns unveiled a new Snapchat filter to encourage debate participation. That particular filter is explicitly partisan, but the appeal of event-based filters seems to be undeniable, and may help build anticipation or boost engagement with your organization. Need another example? Just look to Frank Ocean, who built hype for his new albums by rolling out his own Snapchat filters.

During the debate: Community

The Clinton/Trump debate featured numerous references to fact checkers, many of them in the news media, who corroborated or qualified or rejected claims made by each candidate. What does this mean, from a social media strategist’s standpoint? A live event offers opportunities for your organization to clarify or augment its message via social media—or to have your audience do it for you.

In what may have been a first for a presidential debate, one of the campaigns used the live event to direct viewers to a portion of a campaign website devoted to fact checking. This move steered viewers to another forum where they could engage with a candidate’s social media team and obtain more nuanced information while they followed the debate.

That sort of supplementary information shouldn’t come from your organization alone. The thrill of participating in an event in multiple forums is that an engaged social media team can bring in thoughtful comments and positive feedback from its audience. It’s no surprise that both Clinton and Trump retweeted numerous comments from their supporters as well as from news organizations. And while those comments were often charged with partisan passions, that engagement with your audience provides quick gratification, and offers more ways of looking at your organization and its goals.

After the debate: Action

Both campaigns had an avalanche of GIFs ready after their candidates wrapped up the debate. Those GIFs provided each campaign with an opportunity to summarize the night’s peak moments, or encourage its audience to remember a few key points.

Moreover, both campaigns know that one event doesn’t mean “Mission accomplished!” Instead, on the day after the debate, both campaigns prominently featured fundraising calls on their websites, along with links to help voters register in their states. Calls to action are a vital follow-up to any event, and an opportunity to use social media to build on the enthusiasm and engagement that your audience gives. Moreover, it’s a chance to remind your supporters that important causes persist, even after the big show is over.