Political candidates, companies and individuals alike are struggling to figure out what kind of ROI their brand can earn from social media. New research co-authored by Wharton marketing professor Pinar Yildirim, Maria Petrova of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics and Ananya Sen of the Toulouse School of Economics shows that adopting a new platform gives a financial boost to those vying for U.S. Congressional seats – but only if they are political newcomers.
The paper, “Social Media and Political Donations: New Technology and Incumbency Advantage in the United States,” found that inexperienced politicians who joined Twitter saw an increase of at least 2%-3% in campaign donations – particularly from new supporters.
While the findings may not be good news for the prospects of political incumbents, Yildirim says the research shows that social media could be lowering the barriers to entry to national politics for newcomers, who often don’t have as many financial or other resources at their disposal or as many opportunities to communicate with voters.
“There is a very well documented incumbency advantage in the U.S.; about 90% of [Congressional] incumbents tend to get reelected,” she says. “Incumbents receive significantly more attention from the media, they usually receive higher amounts of donations and they are often believed to be of higher quality.”
Incumbents often begin campaigns with better access to the traditional channels that politicians use to get their message out during election season, namely pricey TV or radio ads and print media coverage. “There are literally no barriers to opening a social media account and communicating with voters,” Yildirim says. “We might be looking at a way that elections could be held on fairer ground.”
Fresh, Inclusive and Emotional
The researchers examined data that includes 1,814 politicians who opened a personal Twitter account between 2009 and 2014, along with campaign contribution statistics from the Federal Election Commission and information about Twitter’s penetration in different regions from the comScore browsing panel.
“We didn’t want to focus on higher-profile individuals – for example, people running for President – because these individuals already receive a lot of media attention,” whereas Congressional races are primarily of local and regional interest, she says. The researchers focused on the impact on campaign contributions because it was a clean mechanism to identify and measure the ROI from launching a Twitter account.
“Experienced politicians need to realize that their competition is somehow finding a voice and catching up with them.”
Aggregate political donations for the average new politician who started a Twitter account increased by at least $5,773, which corresponds to 2.3% of all donations under $3,000 raised during the campaign, the researchers find. “The increase in aggregate donations comes mostly from new donors (i.e. those who never donated to this politician before) and not from repeat donors,” they write. “This suggests that politicians may increase awareness about themselves and their policies via Twitter and gain support from those who did not support them before.”
Inexperienced candidates received a larger bump in contributions when their tweets employed “inclusive language” – using words like “we,” “us” or “together” rather than “I” or “me.” The use of more emotional language also correlated with higher contributions. Gains were also higher for politicians who tweeted more informatively or those who came from areas with lower newspaper circulation. Finally, inexperienced Democratic candidates saw a larger bump than inexperienced Republicans.
As for what is driving the advantage for inexperienced politicians, Yildirim says one explanation could be that incumbents may devote their resources and attention toward existing relationships with traditional media rather than social platforms. Another possibility is that the results reflect the learning curve as voters inform themselves about a new candidate: While tweets by political unknowns are conveying all-new information, the views of incumbents might already be familiar to voters.
“Experienced politicians need to realize that their competitors are somehow finding a voice and catching up with them” by using social media, Yildirim says.
The research also has implications beyond the political arena, suggesting that younger brands will have more success moving the needle through social media, she adds. “Although we focus on politics, the results we are finding will directly apply to new young companies, as well as experienced companies because they face the same communications challenges through traditional and social media.”