South of the Fraser

Surrey, Delta, White Rock and Langleys

Twitter for politicians: a few lessons from the recent municipal election

Another municipal election has come and gone.

This year, 2011, was the first year that social media tools had enough oomph to be considered as part of the media strategy for politicians and groups seeking to influence. How did that go?

Not so effective, based on monitoring Twitter feeds and conversations for the Surrey election.


The background

As part of SouthoftheFraser I collect tweets daily that mention Surrey. It's the What are people tweeting about Surrey section. It's through this monitoring of conversations about the city that the following observations are drawn.


A few difficulties

It's taken several months to come up with the tools and methods to collect a reasonable sampling of mentions about Surrey. Here are some of the challenges and constraints:

  • There's a Surrey in England. Tweets therefore have to be geographically based.
  • Originally I started with just the hashtag #surreybc, but this is not consistently used. Many people don't use hashtags, and some will use #surrey. The search therefore was for surreybc or surrey, based on an area of 65 kilometers centred on Whalley, because Whalley is the centre of my universe.
  • I don't know how Twitter finds out where the user is located, but some accounts will not show, even though they must logically be within that range. This is an irritant I don't have an easy solution for. Yet.
  • A few weeks before the election the hashtag #sryelxn started to be used. Because my main concern at the time was looking for mentions of "Surrey" I didn't monitor this tag until quite late.
  • Twitter is used by different people for different purposes, from personal communications, through sharing, to outrageous spamming. The variety of uses creates a lot of noise. It's because of this noise that I limited searches to items that specifically mentioned the city's name.


The observations

The frequency and number of posts mentioning Surrey by name increased significantly during the election. If a typical day would have 120 posts (after various filters have been applied), a pre-election day could have 300-400 posts. Politicians, supporters and interest groups used it. Quality of posts (by my standards a quality post should tell me something new, or direct me somewhere) varied significantly, from shrill POSTS IN ALL CAPS to informative details and links.

Worth mentioning were live postings of all-candidate debates. Two or three journalists (whether professional or otherwise) took up this interesting exercise.


Which politicians tweeted, and how?

The medium is still new for most people, and different people used it in different ways. Bob Bose, for example, didn't appear on the radar until a week or so before the election, publicly thanking each new follower with a standard message that there were 13 other candidates in his slate (SCC). Many candidates didn't tweet, didn't use the word "Surrey", or use the hashtags "Surreybc" or #sryelxn. The Mayor, Diane Watts, for example only appeared on my records twice, even though I know she uses the service. Her communications officer did show up consistently though.

There were a few politicians that did use it often and in a manner that was personable, showed up on searches and provided information that put them in a good light, but in a non-pushy manner. Stephanie Ryan and Paul Hillsdon are active users. After a few months of seeing their tweets I feel I have a sense of them as people. And that makes me more inclined to trust and – more importantly – vote for them. Tweets included personal commentary, but not the excruciating minutiae that invites toggling that "follow" button to "don't follow". They also consistently used terms that would show up in searches, not just #surreybc and #sryelxn but also #bcpoli and a few others.

If the politician's challenge is to meet people, convince them they are their friend, are hard-working, competent and can be trusted, then these two people used Twitter most effectively.


But did it matter?


Neither Stephanie Ryan or Paul Hillsdon were elected.

Here are a few numbers:

Total voters: 70,253 (25% of the 279,140 total numbers of possible voters. That's pretty sad.)


For mayor

Diane Watts: 55,826 votes (2997 followers on Twitter)

Ross Buchanan: 6267 votes (48 followers on Twitter)



Judy Villeneuve: 45,514 (174 followers on Twitter)

Stephanie Ryan: 11,781 (612 followers on Twitter)


School trustee:

Shawn Wilson: 41,900 (can't find him on Twitter)

Paul Hillsdon: 15,451 (1,009 followers on Twitter)


Watts' Surrey First team swept council and school board, even though they were largely invisible to searches about Surrey.


What are the lessons for politicians?

The major outlines of the election were a foregone conclusion, but for people who live by what they consume through online activity the numbers are out of sync with what could be seen online. Obviously, Twitter is not a major medium for politicians to reach or convince constituents.

However, it is a medium that potential voters could be using, and deserves some attention, both for developing a personal brand and communicating with people. What can politicians do to increase their exposure, authority and likability?

  • Become familiar with the tools and standard best practices. There are 5 millions blogs out there all telling you what and how to develop your 'personal brand'.
  • Think about how users will search for topics of interest to them. Use those exact term in your posts. For Surrey politicians for example, every post about Surrey should either use the word "Surrey", and/or the hashtag #surreybc. Sometimes it's easy to forget this one if you have a post about incinerators, for example, nudge nudge.
  • During an election try to use the hashtag that's being used, in this case it was #sryelxn. Bear in mind, the people monitoring specialized hashtags are probably news or election junkies. People who follow tags, or search key words are likely to retweet content (your content!) if it's informative or considered worth sharing.
  • Monitor the tags and words that your constituents will be using and searching for. You can then respond directly to posts as they appear, or retweet them.
A few miscellanious items that fall under the rubric of best practices:
  • Don't use ALL CAPS.
  • Make sure your picture is good, that you don't have red eye, and that your face fills the frame.
  • Make sure your profile links to your personal site, and has as much information as possible on it.
  • For content, don't forget that Twitter is like a conversation at a work function: don't drink too much and you don't know who is eavesdropping!


And for supporters, special interest groups and journalists?

The same rules apply, but especially a consistent use of a hashtag, and ideally a secondary word as well. For example, for an all candidates meeting every tweet should include #surreybc and #sryelxn. The two tags will show up for people following both the election in particular, but also people interested in items about the city. I suppose a significant debate may also want to include #bcpoli, since the interest may extend to the province as a whole.

Consistent use of tags ensures that people who are looking for particular types of information have a better chance of finding it.




Info on South of the Fraser River: Surrey, Delta, White Rock, City of Langley, Township of Langley, Fort Langley. Maybe a bit of Abbotsford, just for fun.

This site is experimental. See About (top right) for more, or Blog for meta-information. The working goal is to create an almanac of items, tidbits of information and methods of gathering information.

Right now the site is biased to just south of the Fraser River, within the northern reaches of great City of Surrey, but there is some foraging further afield.

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