An odd question perhaps but one that we hear so often. In theory, since Twitter is only a representation of your personality or your brand, you can only be as good or as bad as you are in real life. Yet, stripped down to the basics, excelling on Twitter takes nothing more than a decent grasp on everyday social skills: say interesting things to the right people, think before you speak and engage in conversation with relevant content to the audience. Survey after survey has shown the key to Twitter is engagement, being available to speak to your audience and taking an interest in their content to nurture loyalty. The most effective Twitter accounts aren’t those belonging to global celebrities who can tweet a picture of a glass of water and receive hundreds of thousands of favourites and retweets. The most effective accounts are the ones that truly involve their audience, encouraging them to go into a café and buy an expensive drink or buy music because they felt they were part of a family – see Starbucks and Taylor Swift for examples here.
Speaking, listening and responding are the pillars of effective Twitter activity (and daily social life) so why are our politicians not following these rules? New statistics published by left-leaning think tank Demos show that between the 28th of January and the 4th of March, only 17% of the 60,000 tweets sent by MPs were @ replies. This figure drops to 11% for cabinet or shadow cabinet members. Surely, in the run up to a general election, UK politicians should be fighting to engage with the voting public as often as they can, by whatever means. In this social media age, is a few hours spent replying to questions on Twitter not as worthwhile as an afternoon spent going door to door to drum up support?
Well, not exactly. Twitter can be a nightmare for politicians where the risk of posting a humiliating tweet far outweighs the benefit of humanising yourself to voters. These low percentages suggest that politicians should be doing more to engage on Twitter but the reality is their Twitter feeds are probably a constant stream of incandescent bile from enraged members of the public, overzealous praise and unanswerable questions. Given that our taxes pay politicians’ salaries, it might seem that they owe us an instant explanation to our queries over social media but to give an accurate, honest response to any question on Twitter would require an approvals process so eye-wateringly thorough it would barely seem worth the 140 character limit.
There’s a fine balance for politicians to strike on Twitter between being open and being seen as weak. It can certainly be achieved but takes more time and effort than many are willing to spare. They’re clearly missing a trick though. While a favourite or retweet on Twitter doesn’t equate to a vote, using the channel is a great way to engage with the elusive 18-24 year old voter and encourage people of all ages to care about politics in their daily lives. We’re currently working with the Students’ Union at the University of Nottingham to raise the profile of student voters and to make politicians take notice of them. Social media will play a key role in this campaign as we know it’s an essential tool to share information and generate interest with this community.
Engagement through Twitter may seem alien to some MPs but it’s an important forum for a huge number of the electorate. If politicians listen and can give a handful of intelligent responses each day, they may well reap the rewards this May and for years to come.