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Blogger sizes up social media in Howard races

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When Scott Ewart started writing his "technology scorecards" in January of this year, his first thought was that the posts, which link to social media websites for every candidate in Howard County's burgeoning field of options, could be a good resource for voters.

He quickly discovered that the scorecards would become a resource, too, for the candidates themselves.

"There's… no one place you can go to look at all of the candidates, all of their websites, all of their Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus pages," Ewart, who runs ScottE Software, a small technology services business, said of his inspiration for the blog. "So I thought, I can be that place."

Ewart, who blogs at scottesoftware.wordpress.com, started out analyzing just one big-ticket race: the campaign for governor. Soon, however – and after a flurry of web hits – the Columbia resident started taking a closer look at the social media landscape in Howard County's state and local races.

Ewart's scorecards are a pure numbers game. He lines up candidates side by side and lists their follower counts on each social media platform – except for LinkedIn, Pinterest and YouTube, where perhaps these counts are less telling.

Since his first Howard County scorecards in February, he has also tracked follower growth from month to month. Seeing whose Facebook profile has taken a leap in followers and who has the most "liked" and shared links, he figures, could, "actually show some trends in some of the races, particularly some of the closet races… You can see who's engaged and who's not."

Candidates quickly took notice

Ewart, who has taken to attending candidate forums – "I figure I write about these folks; I should actually meet them and introduce myself," he says – has had conversations about his blog with several political hopefuls, including District 9B delegate candidate Tom Coale and District 1 County Council candidate Kevin Forrest Schmidt.

At a League of Women Voters forum for the District 12 delegate race on April 29, candidate Nick Stewart told Ewart that his site had convinced him to make a few tweaks.

"He said, 'Based on some of the comments, I've changed some of the things that we've been doing on social media,'" Ewart said. "I love that. I think that's really neat."

He says he hasn't gotten "any negative backlash," in part, he thinks, because his comments are not party-specific. "I try to be informational and instructive so that it doesn't seem like I'm picking on you."

Ewart's goal with the evaluations, he added, is to "[try] to give some help, really… It was, to everyone, here's how you do better."

He has a whole list of suggestions for candidates looking to improve their social media presence, which he wrote about in a four-part series on the blog.

The takeaway: The more platforms a candidate is on, the better – but it's important to tailor content to each.

"I want to see website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… so that whatever I'm on, I can follow [a candidate] on the thing that I want to follow her on," Ewart said. "I might not want to follow her on Facebook, but I might on Twitter.

"If you're on all of those things, you link them all together, you link them back to your website… it's like, that's a really good candidate. That person's legit," he added.

One thing Ewart cautions against: linking Facebook and Twitter, so that whatever is posted to one site automatically posts to the other.

"The optics of Facebook and the optics of Twitter are just different," he explains. "The focus of Twitter is hashtags; that's not the focus of Facebook. Facebook, you can write a post that's long, [on] Twitter, you've got 140 characters. And so when you write it on Facebook and it goes to Twitter, and it cuts in the middle of a sentence, it looks stupid. No one's going to click on it and no one's going to follow it."

For candidates looking to maximize their reach, Ewart recommends having a presence on six essential platforms, which he calls "the six": Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.

While maintaining a Facebook presence probably seems obvious, having a LinkedIn or Instagram account might seem less so.

Ewart says a LinkedIn profile could be especially important for the throng of new candidates running their first races this year.

"The reason to list [a LinkedIn profile] is because most people don't know who you are," he said. "So it's your online resume."

As for Instagram, Ewart says the photocentric platform helps candidates emphasize the events they've been attending while on the campaign trail, and reaches out to a younger demographic, which raises the question: do the demographics of social media users align with the demographics of people who vote?

Can "likes" translate to votes?

Ewart ends every technology scorecard with a disclaimer to that effect: "Of course, the reality of followers, likes, +1's and subscribers does not mean a lot when it comes down to voting in the end, but it is a fun exercise to do and makes a great resource for following the candidates."

While it is hard to tie social media usage to voting practices, a recent Pew Research Center study on politics and the Internet showed that, while young users are still most likely to use social media, with 90 percent of the 18-to-29 set using social networking sites, compared to 73 percent of total adults, Facebook and Twitter are not just the domain of the young – 78 percent of people aged 30 to 49 are on social networking sites, as are 65 percent of people aged 50 to 64 and 46 percent of those 65 and up.

A good chunk of social media users appear to be sharing their views, and encouraging others to vote, via these online platforms.

According to a separate Pew survey on social media and voting from November 2012, just under a third of people polled after the last presidential election – 30 percent – had been encouraged via Twitter, Facebook and other social sites to vote for one of the top two candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

Ewart says increasing visibility and creating positive associations in the minds of voters should be the aim of candidates on social media.

"What you want is for somebody to see your name because somebody else 'liked' you," he said.

Social media, by itself, he added, "doesn't win a campaign. What this is is just another piece of a complete campaign strategy."

Ewart points to the two candidates running for Howard's top office of county executive as prime examples of how to use social media the right way.

County Council member Courtney Watson, the Democratic candidate, and state Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Republican candidate, "are both two of the best" at social media "literally in the state," in Ewart's view. "They're better than any candidate running for governor, by far."

What Kittleman and Watson do right, he said, is "they do everything every day, and they're on more platforms."

By posting information that might be useful to the community – such as updates on flooding and road closures during last week's heavy rains – and sharing pictures from events they attend, both candidates are "showing that they're out there in the community all the time, working for your vote," Ewart said. "That's a great optic on social media to show, and they're pretty good at it."

One last tip for candidates, per Ewart: don't run your own social media campaign.

"If you run your own Twitter account, you're doing it wrong," he said. "A candidate can never manage [a social media campaign] well themselves because they've got to manage the finances and they've got to manage the meet-and-greets, and they've got to manage the events. So to try to do it all, it never works well for those folks that try that."

What about the job of following it all?

Ewart admits assembling his technology scorecards and resource pages – he aims to put together a complete listing of social media pages in each state Senate race before the primary – "can be time-consuming.

"But I'm a techie geek who likes politics, who was doing it on my own anyways. I find it entertaining."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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