5 Lessons From Obama's Twitter Town Hall

Mashable

Zach Green is the founder of 140elect LLC, a Twitter political consulting firm that specializes in campaign services and custom Twitter solutions. He blogs regularly at 140elect.com. Follow him @140elect.

Twitter town halls have become a popular campaign tool during this presidential election season. That's why campaign strategist David Axelrod followed President Barack Obama’s economic speech in Ohio yesterday with a power-packed Q&A, sending 28 tweets and re-tweets through the @BarackObama account in as many minutes.

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Certainly, an endless stream of presidential and congressional candidates have tried their own variations of this medium, but Axelrod’s was the most effective execution to date. Here's why.


1. Created a Controlled Venue


Most town halls fail by not taking the reader’s viewpoint into account. Where are users supposed to be watching the town hall’s tweets? Following hashtags through Twitter search or Tweetdeck is the wrong answer. Other tweets get thrown into the mix and the central conversation is quickly lost. Worse yet, Republicans have made hijacking hashtags with a flood of attacks into a sport. Axelrod did it right by directing readers to @BarackObama's profile page, giving him complete control over the content. There, only tweets they chose to send and retweet were displayed.


2. Retweeted Questions First


Holding a town hall on your own profile page provides control over messaging, but still leaves something out. How is anybody supposed to know what questions you’re answering? Tweets are simply too short to restate the question and answer in a single message. Axelrod took the correct approach of retweeting questions first. @BarackObama’s Twitter profile displays both retweets and original tweets, reflecting the full conversation with context.


3. Made Replies Public


If you’ve noticed users putting periods at the beginning of their tweets, it’s probably not a typo. In order to clean up timelines, Twitter limits the number of people who see tweets starting with an @mention. If a tweet is sent by @UserOne, and begins with the text “@UserTwo,” only users who follow both @UserOne and @UserTwo will see that message. Tweets beginning with the characters “.@” are seen by everyone on Twitter. As a result they get eleven times the average retweet count of tweets with just “@” at the start. You can see how Axelrod responded to Anne Trudel’s question about student loans below.


4. Answered The Eggs


Twitter provides the opportunity for anybody to ask questions. That’s one reason it’s such a powerful tool for reaching constituents. Politicians who often seem out of reach are humanized through direct interactions with regular citizens. While there are many power users and big names on Twitter, there are countless people who don’t use it often and haven’t even changed their profile picture from the default image of an egg. Axelrod took a question from Roberta Goldberg that highlights precisely why campaigns should engage these users. @BarackObama has more than 16.5 million followers, while she had only 14. This tweet got 101 retweets, more than any other question of the town hall.


5. Kept It Quick


Twitter is exciting because a vast number of people can send messages, producing a fast-flowing stream where you only have to skim the surface. Watching a profile page, on the other hand, can get boring quick. People often get easily distracted and abandon town halls not too far into the event. Where most of these events have progressed at a snail's pace, Axelrod kept the flow moving without pause. It was the first time @BarackObama sent a tweet or retweet every minute, and that kept things interesting. There is a risk of annoying users with such a blast of messages, but that didn’t seem to happen here. That may have been due to increased enthusiasm around Obama's major economic address. The most shared answer from the event came at the very end, bringing in 274 retweets with Axelrod’s final response.

While this was a highly successful Twitter town hall, there were problems. This event only averaged 97 retweets per tweet compared to @BarackObama’s average of 389 retweets per tweet over the past week. This suggests a problem with virality. Axelrod failed to make it clear when he was responding to a specific question because he did not hit the reply button. This made it impossible to find out what he was answering unless you were watching @BarackObama’s profile page. Many of Axelrod’s answers only made sense in this context. You can normally see a tweet from @BarackObama in your timeline, or shared by another user, and understand it without relying on a broader conversation. Axelrod’s tweets were only intelligible if you knew a town hall was occurring. That said, his use of Twitter after President Obama’s speech today was yet another step in the evolution of Twitter and politics.

Image courtesy wavy1, Flickr.

This story originally published on Mashable here.

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