(Note: This post was originally published on my ethical consumerism blog, The Tree Kisser)
Social media has been the driving force behind nearly all of my professional accomplishments. For over a decade, I’ve used Facebook and Instagram to coordinate successful animal advocacy campaigns & events, to build a personal brand and business around my ethical consumerism blog, and to help other small businesses thrive.
As a passionate, progressive Democrat, I’m eager to share my most successful social media tips, tricks, and strategies with leaders who are fighting the good fight!
It’s no secret that progressive candidates, especially those new to politics, are often outspent by their opponents. This imbalance led to a lot of disappointment for me last year, as I watched several of my preferred candidates lose their elections. I truly believe a strong social media strategy backed by consistent, engaging content is the best way to overcome this disparity.
By sharing my advice, I hope to provide new perspectives and strategies that will help you win elections, galvanize your supporters, and share your vision with the world!
This post is broken into the following sections: The Power Of Social Media & Why Followers Matter (Part 1), Captivate Your Followers and Control Your Narrative with Fresh, Engaging Content (Part 2), Growing Your Social Media Following (Part 3), and Best Practices and Additional Suggestions (Part 4).
Note: The tips below are primarily focused on Instagram and Facebook. However, most of these concepts can be applied to other social media platforms.
Disclaimer: While I’m very engaged in politics, please note that I’m writing this post as someone who has never run for office nor been elected. The opinions & ideas shared below come from my experience as a social media consultant, an inquisitive voter, an obsessive consumer of political news & podcasts, and a campaign super volunteer.
Part 1: The Power Of Social Media & Why Followers Matter
Before I dive into the “how”, let’s talk about the “why”. Whether you’re running for office and want to expand your reach or you’re already elected and want to strengthen your public profile, I recommend prioritizing social media for the following reasons:
Social media costs candidates nothing but time.
Social media is a powerful tool of democratization. Prior to the growth of social media, candidates could really only spread their message through paid ads or earned media. If you’re running in a local race, your budgets are tight and news networks aren’t always beating down your door. Putting time and energy into your social media channels can help you build a team of engaged, passionate, and loyal supporters without spending a dime!
Social media helps you connect with voters who aren’t politically engaged.
Winning requires attracting voters who don’t seek out political content. If they don’t read political news and aren’t targeted by campaign advertisements, how will they know who you are or how you’re fighting for them?
With entertaining and thought-provoking content, you can attract followers who don’t necessarily care about the details of legislation you’re working on. Through the content you share, you can convey your values and priorities without always mentioning politics. Of course, you’ll also share your political opinions and accomplishments, but people will pay more attention to those if they’re interested in you as a person.
Your constituents will be more supportive and forgiving if they feel they know you personally.
You’re never going to please everyone with the choices you make in office. But if you’ve earned your followers’ trust, they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m obviously disappointed when a Democratic leader votes against a bill I support or makes a statement with which I disagree. However, if I’ve already come to like and respect that person, one negative action will have a less significant impact on my overall perception of them.
Your social media community can help you help people in need.
You got into this business to make a difference, right? In addition to work you do in your official capacity, you can also mobilize your followers to join you in helping individuals, organizations, and small businesses in your community. After the recent Texas storm, we saw Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raise millions of dollars to help those impacted. Without their massive online communities, that would not have been possible.
Of course, Beto & AOC are practically celebrities by now, so I’ll share a personal anecdote that may feel more relevant. A few months ago, I posted an Instagram story about a woman I know who has been experiencing homelessness. She was unprepared for an incoming three day snowstorm with subzero temperatures, and she was terrified. In two hours, my followers donated over $800 to cover motel rooms, food, and clothing for her and her friends. None of that could have happened without the trusting relationship I’ve established with my community.
The more abundant your followers, the more you can help your constituents and others in need. And I’m sure I don’t have to point this out to people working in politics, but I presume these stories can only help you in your next election.
A large social media following equals power.
A large and engaged audience can be a useful tool for persuasion. Call upon your people to make phone calls or send messages when you need your colleagues’ support on an upcoming policy proposal! Likewise, if you have access to a big following, people will want to keep you on their good side. No lawmaker wants to be on the receiving end of a scathing tweet sent to AOC’s 12+ million followers!
Hitting 10,000 followers gets you access to the coveted “swipe up” feature on Instagram.
This point is a bit more specific, but without a verified account, you need 10,000 followers to add links to your Instagram story. Verified accounts are those with the little blue check mark next to their name.
People scrolling on social media are easily distracted. When you’re seeking donations or recruiting volunteers, it’s a big ask for supporters to manually type a url or find the website in your bio. If they can access information by simply tapping a button, they’re more likely to take the requested action.
Part 2: Captivate Your Followers and Control Your Narrative with Fresh, Engaging Content
Content is a broad term I’m using to refer to either static posts (photos or videos posted on your main page) or stories (photos or videos that only stay visible for 24 hours).
In planning this post, I scanned the social accounts of 100+ political figures. One pattern quickly became clear. Far too many candidates and elected leaders are using their social media channels almost exclusively to distribute campaign information. Many pages seemed only to be posting about upcoming events, voting requirements and deadlines, endorsement announcements, and legislation updates. I saw a lot of text-filled graphics, and not nearly enough personality. Even as a politically engaged person, I was bored.
Of course you should and need to share information about your campaign and legislation, but not exclusively! Those posts will be useful to your supporters when they have questions, but they aren’t likely to attract anyone new. It’s the posts in between, the ones that give people a sense of who you are and what you stand for, that create the foundation for a strong social media presence.
Below are some content strategy ideas and general tips that should help you generate unique and compelling stories or posts:
Consistency is crucial for engagement.
You’ll see a huge increase in activity and views by adding to your Instagram story multiple times throughout the day. Ideally, it’s also best to share daily static posts. Static posts typically involve more thought and effort, so if posting every day sounds impossible, start by aiming for once every 2-3 days. The algorithm heavily prioritizes consistent posters, and it rewards you for supplying a high volume of content for the platform. Daily posts may sound daunting if this is new behavior for you, but it quickly becomes second nature.
Use examples to show the impact of our donations.
Voters know campaigns cost money, but most have no idea where that money goes or how it’s spent. When you open a box of freshly printed campaign literature, share a photo and tell us, “Your $10 contribution can help us print 100 more flyers. 100 more flyers means 100 more voters will learn about our progressive campaign!” Or share a screenshot of your Facebook advertising statistics and tell us, “Your $20 donation could put our climate justice agenda in front of 1200 local voters.”
Quantifying the impact of your donations turns a financial transaction into a story. It makes us feel more emotionally connected to your campaign. We’re not only donating to a candidate, we’re investing in change. It also convinces us you actually need our donations. Additionally, financial specifics provide transparency. And transparency helps you build trust.
Beto O’Rourke made great use of this tactic while driving around Iowa to promote his 2019 Presidential campaign. Across social media, he posted a video showing the exact dollar amount ($28.53) it took to fill his rental car up with gas. As a result, donors felt like they weren’t just sending cash – they were helping their candidate literally spread his message from town to town.
Take us behind the scenes of your campaign or your office.
Professional photos from campaign events and bill signings demonstrate your supporters’ enthusiasm and celebrate your accomplishments, but we also like to see what it takes to make the big events happen.
Turn the camera on yourself and tell us how you really felt about the day. Tell us what went wrong and how you or your staff handled it. Share pictures of written speeches you gave with your scribbled edits all over the paper. Help us understand what you do!
Share moments from your personal life to help us connect to you.
Many of your posts will likely be work-related, but adding personal content in between helps people connect to you. Post old photos and discuss the challenges you were facing at that time. Share an embarrassing moment you remember. Tell us how you spent your morning before you left for the office. Show us how you can relate to the lives and struggles of your constituents.
If you’re a parent (and if you feel comfortable), tell stories about your kids! One of Rep. Katie Porter’s most popular recent posts showed her sons repairing a patch of drywall they’d broken. That post had nearly 1000 comments on Instagram alone, so people were clearly interested!
Share breaking news stories and react with your genuine opinions.
I learn more about a person’s core values from this kind of content than I do from reading their website. If your post offers an insightful perspective, your followers may share it on their stories or at least leave comments. Engagement is social media currency; the more people react, the more other people will see the post!
Use the questions and polls functions on your Instagram stories.
Social media rewards engagement, and people love to share their opinions. Look for opportunities to use these feedback features. Ask questions like, “What’s an issue you feel strongly about that rarely gets discussed?”, “What do you want to know about running for office?”, or even, “Which of these two sweatshirt designs should we add to our campaign merchandise store?”
If you use the question box, make time later to publicly reply or share answers on your story.
Consider a weekly theme.
Establishing a routine is a creative way to keep yourself on your followers’ minds. If you regularly create informative or entertaining content, people will start to look forward to it! Host something like “Talk To Me Tuesdays”, asking constituents to share their concerns or ask questions. Or center it around an activity, ie: “Sunday Coffee and Questions”. Only do this if you’re confident you can commit to it!
Host live videos whenever possible!
Someday, someone will write a thesis on Beto O’Rourke’s use of live Facebook videos in explaining a) how he came so close to winning the 2018 Texas Senate election and b) how he became famous and beloved so quickly.
Even as a non-Texan, I tuned in to Beto’s live videos almost every day of his Senate campaign. I looked forward to hearing him chat with his staff as they traveled between cities. Thousands watched anxiously as Beto raced to the airport hoping to make his flight to a major campaign event. I was excited when he ran for President, even though I was more politically aligned with other candidates. All because I felt like I knew him and I trusted his intentions. That relationship you build is the real value of sharing transparent, real life content.
Live videos can be Q&As, behind-the-scenes footage from events, or just spontaneous chats when you want to check in. People are craving real, raw content, and live videos offer exactly this. If a volunteer or staff member is filming the live video while you’re on stage, talking to constituents, or doing something that keeps you busy, try to take breaks to address the camera.
Write long form captions about significant issues.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, but Instagram photos with long captions are starting to gain more traction. Because Instagram launched as a visual medium, we used to be told that brief captions were preferable. Now, users are craving more substantial content, and they often reward that with more comments, shares, and saves. Instagram allows up to 2,200 characters in the caption, which gives you a lot to work with!
Long form captions are a great opportunity to dig into your story. Discuss moments that transformed you. Tell us what inspired you to run for office. Get into the details of a social issue you care about. I recommend writing your caption out in the notes app, adding paragraph breaks and emojis (not too many) where applicable.
(Almost) everyone loves posts about animals!
As a lifelong animal advocate, I’ll admit some bias in this recommendation. That said, I always notice an uptick in engagement when political figures post content featuring pets or wildlife. Think about all the coverage Joe Biden’s rescue dog moving to The White House has gotten!
Don’t have a pet to talk about? Visit an animal shelter and ask staff if you can introduce some adoptable pets to your followers. Foster a rescue pet if you have the time, space, and interest! You could also visit local wildlife rehabilitation centers, or even share tips for protecting wild animals and pollinators in your backyard. Because animal rescue and wildlife protection are (for the most part) non-controversial issues, you’re likely to attract support outside your traditional base.
Consider investing in tools to improve the quality and ease of your content creation.
Want better, more flattering lighting? Tired of holding your phone up while you film or try to get the perfect shot? There are many products that can take your content to the next level. Two popular choices (both of which I use) are the Neewer Ring Light and this Cell Phone Tripod/Selfie Stick (comes with a bluetooth cell remote, so you can take pictures without touching the phone).
I also recommend experimenting with photo editing apps. You don’t want to overly edit your photos to the point of being unrealistic, but sometimes a few tweaks or a subtle filter can make a big difference! I recommend VSCO and Pink Papaya.
Share quality content from other people and organizations.
Make sure you follow organizations and leaders you support. Share their informational or inspirational posts to your story, tagging the source’s account (so they’ll know you shared it). This will strengthen your reputation as a source of valuable content, and will help your story stay more consistent.
Part 3: Growing Your Social Media Following
Whether you’re starting with 50 followers or 50,000, it’s always important to keep growing. Building an Instagram audience was easier when I started in 2011, but there are still creative techniques you can use to grow, one follower at a time. When you next have downtime, stop aimlessly scrolling and use this time to your strategic advantage.
Fortunately, you all have one big advantage: your office or the office you’re running for! People are attracted to and fascinated by power. Make sure your title or the one you’re aspiring to is clear on your profile! This absolutely increases the likelihood that people visiting your page will want to follow you. The following tips will help you put that advantage to use:
Be interactive on other posts, especially those of your colleagues and fellow candidates.
Leave substantial, thoughtful comments on posts from people you already follow, especially those in the political arena. People reading the post may see your comment, visit your page, and click that follow button! Recently, while waiting for a pot of water to boil, I wrote a long comment on a post (relevant to my niche) I came across. Within minutes, I had five new followers from that exchange!
Consider reaching out to your network to emphasize the importance of engaging with one another’s content. Many people have no idea how valuable this is!
Use your ad budget to boost popular posts.
This blog post mostly focuses on free, organic growth, but many of you probably use paid advertising as well. I recommend prioritizing boosted posts over generic campaign introductions. Rather than putting the bulk of your dollars behind spreading your campaign video, choose some of your entertaining, inspirational, or impassioned posts to promote. Pick content that generated a positive organic response (a post that received more likes, comments, and shares than usual) and put that in front of people.
Why? Because people are both overwhelmed by political messaging and skeptical of politicians in general. They don’t yet know why you’re different or why they should trust you. They’ll keep scrolling before you can say, “I’m Jane Smith and I’m running to be your next Mayor.” A photo, video, or text post that conveys your values and your authenticity is more likely to intrigue them. Show, don’t tell.
Search hashtags to engage with voters in your area.
Attracting followers can be as easy as leaving comments on your constituents’ posts! Use hashtags relevant to your city or state to find posts from potential supporters. I’m in Denver, so I would search hashtags like #DenverArtists, #DenverSmallBusiness, #DenverDining, or even just #Denver. You can also search by locations like your neighborhood, your city, or a business where your ideal constituent might hang out. You’ll be given a choice to see results by “top” or “recent”; for this purpose, I recommend “recent”.
When you see an interesting post, leave a like and a comment! Commenting with a question is extra helpful, because the person is more likely to engage with your response. Then visit that person’s page and see if they have another post or two you can say something about. If coming up with relevant comments feels forced, just be straightforward. Tell them you’re running for or currently in office, and ask which issues matter to them. If they answer, be sure you do too!
Note: this method works best on posts from people who don’t have large followings. They’re more likely to pay attention to each comment.
This process gets a little repetitive, so it’s is a great activity for when you’re watching TV or listening to a podcast.
Post about the local businesses you visit.
Many people do this with restaurants, but keep it in mind at hair salons, veterinarians, bookstores, car repair shops, etc. Not only does this show your support for your local community, many businesses will repost your content on their story. For the business to receive a notification, make sure to tag their username, not just click on the location.
The majority of their followers are probably in your area, putting you in front of more local voters! While you’re visiting, mention to the employees or business owners what you’re running for or what you do. This will make them more likely to mention those details in the repost. A local coffee shop posting “City council candidate (your name) came to see us today!” is more helpful than them just sharing a picture you took.
In the months before the 2021 runoff election, (now) Senator Jon Ossoff repeatedly visited and posted about Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan, a popular restaurant boasting 400k+ Instagram followers. As a result, they shared content about him constantly, a phenomenon I suspect played a role in his victory!
Reach out to bloggers, social media influencers & “micro-influencers” in your area.
Connect with influencers who may be willing to talk about you, write about you, or share your content. You don’t need to find people with a massive audience; look for anyone with more than a couple thousand followers. In fact, “micro-influencers” (as those with more modest followings are called) are likely people whose followers trust and relate to them most.
Tell the person about yourself and ask if they have any issues or concerns they’d like to discuss. Maybe they have questions to ask you. Even a simple back-and-forth conversation may end up on their story!
If they seem interested and if your values are aligned, ask them to interview you or share your story. If they aren’t currently interested in doing so, make sure they know they can reach out in the future.
Ideally, you’ll want to find someone like my friend Lauren Harrington (shown above), a progressive activist who focuses heavily on political content. That said, don’t limit yourself to vocally political people! You may want to skip influencers who focus on one specific content category, but you never know. Maybe a cooking blogger would consider a guest post where you introduce yourself and share your favorite recipe! You can also seek out influencers who focus on sustainability, childcare, racial justice, and other issues relevant to your progressive vision.
Some influencers are afraid to discuss politics during national elections, because they feel their impact won’t be big enough to risk venturing into controversial content. However, if you’re running in a local race with smaller margins, knowing their content could actually influence an election might be appealing!
There are websites that specialize in finding local influencers, and you can certainly look into those. However, I’d start by doing your own detective work. Google “bloggers in (your city/state)” or “influencers in (your city/state)”. Or head back to those hashtags and search things like #(yourcity)Blogger. When you search hashtags, select the “top” filter to see the most popular recent posts under that tag. Those posts will likely come from people with substantial followings.
Above all, create shareable content!
All of this growth strategy comes back to content. The more interesting, informative, and inspirational your posts are, the more people will share and talk about them.
If you don’t currently pay much attention to social media, make some time for it. Notice which styles and types of posts get traction. Follow people in your field, especially those with large, engaged followings, and see what works for them. Then put your own spin on those concepts, and see what you can do!
Part 4: Best Practices and Additional Suggestions
We’ve covered why social media is important, what kinds of content to focus on, and how to grow your followers. The remaining tips are here to help you build upon the aforementioned strategies!
Reply to comments as quickly as possible.
Most social media platforms reward users for starting conversations and interacting with one another. Instagram determines the value of your posts very quickly. A post with increasing comments is more likely to pop up in the feeds of your existing followers.
Try to reply with at least four words. “Thank you” isn’t nearly as valuable as “thank you for your feedback!” Even better, respond with a question when applicable. Replying to comments also makes your followers feel heard and valued, making them more likely to engage the next time.
PS: This same principle applies to direct messages! The more quickly you reply, the better.
Try to get a “verified account” (that little blue checkmark) on social media platforms
Ever seen a blue checkmark next to someone’s name on social media? That means they’re considered a “notable” account. The checkmark signals to other users that you’re a trustworthy person they should pay attention to. Being verified can be hugely helpful when it comes to attracting new followers! And, as mentioned earlier, verified accounts also get access to the Instagram “swipe up” feature in stories.
Each platform has different procedures and requirements for verification, and they’re often vague. One of their many considerations is whether you’re “likely to be impersonated,” which is certainly relevant to political candidates and leaders. Whether you’re running for office or already elected, it’s worth applying! If you’re turned away at first, you can apply again later.
Include your office (or the office you’re seeking), your location, and your election date in your bio.
Don’t assume people visiting your page know who you are! Whether you’re running for office or already elected, write that information (along with your location) in your profile bio. And if you have an election coming up, be sure to include that date so your supporters can plan when to vote!
Note: Once you’ve won your election, be sure to update your bio. I saw multiple Instagram accounts from recently elected officials whose bios still said, “running for”.
Repurpose your content across other social media platforms.
Unless they’re diehard supporters, most people won’t follow you on all social media platforms. If you put work into a Facebook photo, share it on Instagram and/or Twitter. When you do a live or longer form video for Instagram, upload it to Facebook and/or YouTube!
Not all content will make sense for every platform, but much of it will. The more platforms you’re active on, the bigger reach you have.
Encourage people to click “save” on your Instagram posts that contain useful information.
That little bookmark icon on the bottom right below your Instagram post is the “save” button. Users can tap that if they want to refer back to the post later. Saving a post tells Instagram a user finds it valuable enough to revisit, which will help you in the algorithm.
Adding a call-to-action like, “Be sure to save this post if you found it valuable!” on your most informative posts can be a gentle reminder for your viewers. Just don’t say it on every single post!
Use your Instagram story to share positive comments and messages you receive.
When someone says something flattering about you, share it! Of course, if it’s a private message, ask permission first. Take a screenshot, crop around the text you want to share, and add your own reply or commentary.
Sharing positive comments demonstrates the real support you have and encourages people to engage (in hopes that you’ll post their comment). For example, I’m a longtime fan of Senator Cory Booker and have occasionally posted about him on my Instagram story. When he sees and shares those posts, it makes me want to post about him more often!
Be interactive on your campaign’s Facebook Event pages.
Many candidates use Facebook Event pages to publicize upcoming fundraisers, rallies, volunteer opportunities, and other noteworthy happenings. Unfortunately, almost every political Facebook Event page I’ve seen offers the bare minimum. The organizer posts one image, the date/time/description of the event, and a link to RSVP outside of Facebook. Then they never return to the page. This is SUCH a missed opportunity.
While consulting for a local retail business last year, I started promoting their in-store sales with Facebook Events. I posted new content (photos of merchandise, insider tips about extra discounts, etc.) in the discussion area at least every other day leading up to the sale. The payoff was huge. People who RSVP to your Facebook Event get notifications every time you post in the discussion! This is a great way to make people feel included in your campaign. Once they’re invested, they’re more likely to share the event and invite others!
You can post anything from simple messages from the candidate, links to recent interviews, or your most recent Instagram photo. Post a poll asking them to select the reason they’re attending. As I mentioned before, people love to give their opinions. Facebook Event pages will mostly be seen by your active supporters, so have fun with them!
Join local Facebook groups and interact with members.
There’s a Facebook group for just about everything. Start by joining political or issue based groups, where your message is likely to be well-received. For example, here in Denver we have Denver Progressives, Progressive Democrats of Colorado, Our Revolution – Metro Denver, and Colorado Justice Reform. And there are many more where those came from!
After joining, take a look at the group rules. If permitted, introduce yourself and your campaign. Tell them what you’re fighting for, when your election is, and how they can follow you on social media. Try to interact with other posts in the group. People are more receptive when they feel like you didn’t show up just to promote yourself.
Join Nextdoor and introduce yourself to your community.
Nextdoor is a location-based social media platform meant to connect you to people nearby. Introduce yourself and ask people to share concerns relevant to the office you occupy or are seeking. Tell them where they can follow you on social media for more updates. Post on Nextdoor every 2-3 weeks, switching up the text and the image (if you use one). You’re likely to reach different people each time.
Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to experiment!
Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. It’s better to post something average than nothing at all. You’re not likely to lose followers from one dud of a post, and you’ll gain more traction by posting consistently.
I hope this post has been helpful! I’m thrilled and inspired to see so many progressive Democrats running for office in the next couple years. I want you to get the attention and support you deserve. If you have questions about anything I mentioned, feel free to contact me! Send an email to email@example.com or message me on Instagram at @thetreekisser!