Trudeau's social-media playbook looks a lot like Obama's

In angling for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau seems to be mimicking Barack Obama's precedent-setting social-media strategy: engage and mobilize voters on every online platform to show the public a relatable candidate who deserves their vote.

Liberal MP the front-runner in party's leadership race

Federal Liberal Party leadership candidate Justin Trudeau takes part in the final leadership debate in Montreal, Quebec, March 23, 2013. The Liberals will vote for a new leader in April. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

In angling for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, which will be determined this weekend, Justin Trudeau seems to be mimicking Barack Obama's social-media strategy during his first presidential campaign: engage and mobilize voters on every online platform to show the public a relatable candidate who deserves their vote.

"We've been capitalizing on what Justin's been doing on his own," said Suzanne Cowan, a communications volunteer with Trudeau's campaign. "He's been doing this for years."

Kady O'Malley, CBC's Parliament Hill reporter, said Trudeau was one of the first members of Parliament to craft his own messages on Twitter, rather than sending out a feed of press releases or canned content.

Last fall, Trudeau discussed his views on the use of social media and the internet in politics at a Facebook event in Toronto.

"The new public square is online," Trudeau said.

"The idea that political parties can somehow bring people into their lecture halls or bring people into their political organizations, rather than going out to them where they happen to be gathering on Facebook through social media anyway, is something that people are going to have to come to grips [with]."

Trudeau's team appears to be putting his words into practice as it works hard to grow his digital footprint.

Trudeau is seen as the front-runner in the Liberal leadership race. As he goes into the final weekend of the Liberal convention, he has:

  • Amassed more Twitter followers than the other five candidates combined
  • Created a separate Twitter account for his social media team to promote events and voting
  • Gathered more than 75,000 likes for his Facebook page
  • Posted more than 50 photos on Instagram
  • Hosted Google hangouts from his YouTube account
  • Developed an iPhone app where users can take photos with a superimposed image of him

But a large online following doesn't necessarily mean an active one.

Trudeau has more than 198,000 followers and gains an average of about 6,700 new followers monthly, a much faster rate than any of his leadership rivals. Marc Garneau, who bowed out of the race in mid-March and has endorsed Trudeau, came closest to the front-runner's gains with about 880 new followers each month.

When CBC News filtered the six Liberal candidates' Twitter accounts through the online analytical tool StatusPeople, it found that only 45 per cent of Trudeau's followers were considered "good" — meaning users who are active on Twitter, rather than fake or inactive accounts. The other candidates' good follower percentages ranged from 68 per cent for Martha Hall Findlay to 79 per cent for Joyce Murray.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had the same percentage of good followers as Trudeau, while Obama, whose account is the fourth-most followed in the world, mustered only 25 per cent of good followers.

Some of Trudeau's tweets

  • I apologize to all my social media followers for bringing up IKEA without a shoutout to #ikeamonkey.
  • Totally stoked about playing rugby on the Hill lawn today! Last time with #RugbyCanada, I split my pants, this time they gave me shorts...
  • In other news: My friend Todd Russell’s old MP website has been dormant and inactive since the 2011 election… just like Peter Penashue.
  • Whatever floats your boat, my friend… RT @scottfeschuk: It would be amazing if I can get a just-ate-Mini-Wheats retweet from @JustinTrudeau.
  • I no doubt have something more important to be doing, but I just found the whale in xkcd’s Click and Drag, and it made me smile.

It's clear Trudeau loves Twitter and understands how social media can help politicians, said Rahaf Harfoush, author of Yes We Did: An Inside Look At How Social Media Built the Obama Brand.

Obama revolutionized online campaigning

A young, relatively unknown U.S. Senator Barack Obama and his presidential campaign team revolutionized the use of social media in political campaigning in 2008, said Harfoush, who volunteered with Obama's new media team for three months during his first presidential run.

On his official website, his team engineered their own social network, myBO. They opened Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts — followed by millions — for Obama and his wife, Michelle. Obama's new media team created a personable, accessible online presence for him, posting photos of everyday activities and reaching out to minorities on lesser-known networks such as BlackPlanet.

Obama's social media use "allowed him and the campaign to act like a start-up — agile, flexible, responsive — instead of being limited by a decades-old political playbook," said Harfoush, adding this created a strong sense of loyalty among his supporters and spurred them into action more readily.

Barack Obama's Twitter account is a mix of official, policy tweets and posts showcasing the U.S. president's personality, like this photo he sent out with the caption, "jogging buddies." (Barack Obama/Twitter)

The team focused on fundraising small donations online — in $3, $5 or $10 US increments. The approach brought in more than $659 million from individual contributions, according to the U.S. Federal Election Commission, with more than half of the money coming from contributions of $200 or less.

The most recent batch of fundraising numbers released by Elections Canada show a similar pattern for Trudeau, who has raised about $1.3 million Cdn since last October. His team said Trudeau's donors offer an average of $155, and more than 3,000 people gave $20 or less.

Obama's strategists also mobilized volunteers on a micro level. Instead of overwhelming supporters with large tasks, they offered prospective volunteers opportunites to get involved in smaller ways: subscribe to emails, watch a video, make one phone call and so on.

This strategy, which expanded the reach of Obama's messages and freed him from the limitations of the media cycle, helped Obama win the election, said Harfoush.

Following Obama's footsteps

Like Obama, Trudeau focuses not only on gathering mass followings across multiple social networks, but also on being authentic.

"The idea of having to try and put on a mask and be something for public consumption that is different from the person you are when you're at home, with your buddies, having a beer at the pub ... would smack me as so deeply ungenuine," Trudeau said at the Facebook event. "I've managed to, I think, strike a certain chord of authenticity that has made me successful in social media spheres."

On Valentine's day, federal Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau tweeted his dressed-up daughter, which was his gift from his wife, with the hashtag "betterthanchocolates." (Justin Trudeau/Twitter)

On Twitter, Trudeau sends out a mixed bag of tweets ranging from witty political humour and campaigning to family photos and geeky outings.

O'Malley said his appreciation for pop culture and internet memes "would be really hard to fake if you didn't actually have it."

He also capitalizes on campaigning in a culture that digitally records their politicians' every moves, said Harfoush.

O'Malley said Trudeau appears to be getting more mindful of how his tweets may be interpreted.

He sparked a Twitterverse frenzy when he answered a handwritten note asking him if he believed he could beat Harper by invoking his father's famous phrase: "Just watch me." Michael Kydd, who received the clever response, immediately photographed the note and posted it to his Twitter account. 

"It's nice to see a digital native, if you will, using these tools in an authentic way," said Harfoush. "It's clear that it's resonating with at least a certain segment of the population."

The Canadian Press found most of Trudeau's online fans don't self-identify as political junkies. The words that commonly appear in their web biographies are "love," "student," "music" and "writer."

Trudeau has said he doesn't necessarily think his online following will help him win the election. "It doesn't give you one extra vote," he said, but added that he hopes social media will help potential voters get to know him, and he wants to continue mobilizing Canadians via social networks.

Post-election social-media strategy

Trudeau and others have criticized Obama for failing to keep voters engaged after they elected him.

Barack Obama's Twitter account is the 4th most followed, but the U.S. president tweeted from the handle himself for the first time in June 2011. His staffers provided all of his prior tweets. (Barack Obama/Twitter)

While Obama started a White House blog, launched We the People petitions and began sending out his own tweets, Harfoush said she felt their social media campaign "kind of dropped off" following his election.

Harfoush speculated that was because Obama's new media team was more restricted after entering the White House. She hoped that if elected prime minister one day, Trudeau will continue to engage Canadians, who she said don't have the right avenues for political engagement.

Cowan said it's not only possible but necessary for Trudeau to continue using social media to engage with the public if he is elected. She said that Trudeau "will be reaching out to as many people as possible to generate ideas that come from the grassroots up."

But, like with Obama, that may prove difficult given the pressures of public office.

If he is elected, O'Malley said, "that will be a fun discussion that [Trudeau's team] will have at the prime minister's office."

With files from the Canadian Press