When Barack Obama was running for office in his memorable 2008 campaign, one of the many ways he captivated America was through social networking. He recognized that an online movement could influence offline behavior in politics. He tapped into social media for its communication capabilities and ability to develop and manage a database. As an example, Obama had more than three times as many MySpace friends as John McCain during the race.
Three years later, it’s not a matter of if political campaigns are utilizing social media, it’s a matter of how. Enter Alex Torpey. The 23-year-old new media consultant, web designer, and volunteer EMT was elected Mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, in May. He’s now the second-youngest mayor in the state behind 22-year-old James Kern III of Pohatcong. How did he do it? As he states on his official website: “By bringing technology to government and government to people.”
Inc.com’s Lou Dubois talked with Torpey about how social media helped his campaign, why bringing technology to government is important and the biggest challenges of being a 23-year-old mayor.
Why did you build your campaign around social media?
We were able to help get a jumpstart on our fundraising by using email and Facebook, which really helped us to start getting material printed and placing paid ads. And just as far as spreading the news of the campaign, having a site with something as simple as a Facebook 'like' button on all of the pages helps make it easier for website visitors to spread content. And when we looked at the stats after the fact, we saw that a lot of people indeed did share pages through those tools.
How did focusing on online connections actually help you to win?
The practice of using online platforms for elected office is fairly unexplored and the tools are still a bit rough. But it's an exciting time because even though the tools are new, that lends an advantage to those who know them and can use them.
I think a lot of the success I had was due to how hard we worked, both on and offline, and the excitement of the volunteers around my campaign. But a lot had to do with the message and the content of the campaign. It seems that a lot of people are frustrated with government, and what they perceive as a lack of real progress, transparency and interactivity. People hear the same ideas about the same problems and appear to be losing faith in the government to be able to solve problems. In South Orange, I think there was a feeling that the community was fairly disconnected from government and there was a desire to bring someone in from the outside who is able to look at the challenges that face our municipality from a new perspective and bring people in more as part of that process.
What were the most effective tools you utilized during your campaign?
One of the most effective tools I used is a campaign/advocacy platform called NationBuilder. It's a content management system that helps put together a great website and it combines email and text blasts, social networking integration, online fundraising and contact management in a way that really helps empower smaller campaigns. I am still using the site now for advocacy of our government in South Orange on my own site at AlexTorpey.com.
There still is nothing more effective than having a one-on-one conversation with a voter. But in addition to actual door-to-door campaigning, I did what I can only describe as virtual door knocking, which was adding as many people on Facebook that live in South Orange and sending an introductory message. Having done 100-200 of those, it certainly helped personalize the campaign and create a better connection when a volunteer or I subsequently called them or went to their house. We tried to bridge the physical and digital worlds in as many as possible, including having QR codes on lawn signs, but they haven't caught on enough yet such that more than a handful of people scanned them.
Social media can be great to build a community, but now that you’re in office, what more can you do to keep the public engaged?
The first job is learning and getting acclimated. South Orange is the only government I've seen (though I suspect there are others) that doesn't have a transition period. I took office literally five days after the election was called. So far it has been a lot of getting caught up to speed, learning the dynamics of our Board and working with others to start to lay out a larger vision for South Orange.
But already, a lot of smaller things have changed. For example, we’re holding public office hours, doing brief video updates after each meeting, updates over my personal social media accounts and then putting in place processes to expand that to official government channels. We’re also looking at how, in broader terms, we can increase ways for our community to give feedback, volunteer and be part of the governance process.
The type of promotion that we did during the campaign is a process I am trying to take to office and to our local government. One of the most important things a municipality can do is to recruit more businesses and shoppers to the downtown area, and using social media and even SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques to ensure that people can see what sort of exciting things South Orange is up to is critical. Because South Orange doesn't have a full time press or PR person, I believe a lot of that responsibility lies in my position to be a promoter for all of the assets that our town has.
One of the biggest lessons from the campaign that I'd like to apply to government is managing the process as more of an advocate and volunteer organizer than a CEO. We have a very engaged public in South Orange, but very little support to help sustain the people who do get involved. In a town of 17,000 (along with Seton Hall students) and a small unpaid governing body and government, we have over 40 committees, many of which have high turnover and don't meet frequently. Some of these don't have a very clearly defined mission and objectives and that stems from the fact that there is no process in place to manage volunteers, which is a difficult and particular task. We can find a pretty huge return on investment by having one person help to facilitate dozens upon dozens of active and sustained volunteers. Nonprofits and political campaigns take advantage of this all of the time and I'd like to see our government move in that direction as well.
What are the biggest challenges in being a 23-year-old Mayor?
Quite a few! There are a lot of challenging social dynamics at play when someone this young is in this kind of position, and I have to go above and beyond what is required normally to establish my legitimacy in this position. But for the most part, we have really open minded community here and there has been an incredible outpouring of support and excitement from residents both in and out of South Orange about the fact that someone this young is actually in this position.
Because this is an unpaid position, which is a bit of an exception for a town the size of South Orange, I also have a job outside of office—doing new media consulting through my own business—and between that and being a volunteer EMS in South Orange, it really doesn't allow much time to relax. I'm also in graduate school for my MPA in emergency management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, so the schedule is definitely full and it takes a careful balance to have some time to relax and not get burned out.
Overall, I think my age brings more to the table than not, and the idea that someone who isn't affiliated with a political party, didn't have the blessing of the establishment, and who doesn't have deep pockets was able to get elected into a substantial government office is pretty exciting. Hopefully this will help show other young people that this is possible to do, and I hope to have more younger people as colleagues in elected office around the country as more people realize they can do this. I think we're on the cusp of a generation of government, political and social leadership that come from the 'outside' as barriers of entry to these fields are lowered and we see more competitive elections, which will hopefully be more content-driven.