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Advocacy campaigns have relied heavily on email for more than two decades, but a recent survey shows that a handful of well-conceived comments on social media aimed towards Congress may be just as effective as thousands of emails.

In a poll of House and Senate offices by the Congressional Management Foundation, three quarters of senior staff said that between one and 30 comments on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were enough to grab their attention on an issue. Thirty-five percent said that fewer than 10 comments were enough.

“The contrast is shocking between Twitter volume and email volume,” CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch said.

Replacing Email

The study polled Capitol Hill communications directors, legislative directors and legislative assistants in July and August of this year about their current use of social media at work and how they expect to use these platforms in the near future.

The survey, Fitch said, demonstrated that staffers see social media interactions as authentic communication. Because of the volume of messages, they did not see email in the same way. While email is still the dominant form of communication, 63 percent said they expected communications with constituents over social media to increase over that via email or phone calls in the next five to 10 years.

Advocacy platforms like CQ Roll Call's Engage make it easy for associations and advocacy groups to use social media to contact Congress.One of the major attractions of email in advocacy campaigns has traditionally been the ability to use volume to boost the authority of individual voices. Whereas one or a few constituents writing into a Hill office may receive momentary attention, thousands of constituents delivering a similar message amplified it immensely. As a result, many Congressional offices have become adept at processing bulk email campaigns, recording both the subject and volume of incoming messages.

A Single Constituent

Researchers asked staffers whether different types of constituent messages on social media were influential to the representatives and senators they serve. While respondents were most likely to say that multiple constituents participating within a group were influential, a majority of those polled said that even a single constituent commenting on their own was considered influential.

The following percentages of poll participants said that these different constituent types were influential with members of Congress when commenting on social media:

  • 77 percent cited multiple constituents commenting within a group
  • 75 percent cited leaders of a group or organization
  • 69 percent cited a single constituent self-identifying with a group
  • 68 percent recognized the official account of a group or organization
  • 68 percent noted multiple constituents commenting similarly, but not under the banner of a group
  • 58 percent cited a single constituent on his or her own

The polling is part of a larger study of congressional staffers’ use of social media that CMF will conduct into 2015. The foundation revealed a snippet of the data it gathered from these surveys at a recent Advocacy Leaders Network meeting.

During the ALN meeting, congressional staffers said that, although social media’s influence is rising among Congressional offices, seeing an issue pop up in tweets or comments in just one instance is generally not enough to get their attention. At the same time, so-called “thunderclaps,” when advocates tweet a prearranged message at an account all at once, are not seen as authentic communication. But if tweets and comments on an issue appear over the course of many days on social media accounts, staffers will notice. These repeated interactions have to have a human element: simply tweeting or posting the exact same language over and over again will not convince staff that a real constituent concern is being expressed.

‘Have a Conversation’

Unlike email, technology does not yet allow staff to separate constituent comments on social media from those coming from outside a district. Fitch said that that lack of capability doesn’t really matter much to lawmakers, who see social media more as a barometer of public opinion. The organic nature of social media helps, too. Someone leaving a comment or tweeting is ostensibly a real person taking a more significant action than simply clicking on a “send” button attached to an online petition or call to action.

For example, Fitch noted that lawmakers became extremely wary of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act in early 2012 when the copyright infringement measures received enormous criticism on social media. Both bills ultimately went nowhere.

Because many staffers have grown up with the media, Fitch said they are adept at separating out constructive comments on Facebook and Twitter from the noise. Just as in email, the tone and level of influence a sender has will boost the likelihood of a message being heard.

In terms of preference for a social media platform, Fitch said that “Facebook is still king, and Twitter is crown prince.” Lawmakers particularly like when constituents interact with content their staff posts on Facebook. “They want you to have a conversation,” he said, “not change the subject.”