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18 to 34 Year Olds, Social Media and the Calgary Election

By DJ Kelly August 17, 2010

In today’s issue of Metro Calgary I was quoted for an article about Calgary municipal election candidates’ use of social media. The questions asked of me were simple enough: who’s doing it well, etc.

However there was a second interviewee for the same article. Bruce Foster, identified as chair of the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University, indicated he was not convinced in the power of social media during an election. The article quotes:

“While (social media) is important, you’re also targeting the segment of the voting population that traditionally has the lowest (voter) turnout,” said Foster, adding many people who use social media fall into the 18- to 35-year-old age group.

I responded to this statement in the comments section, but I wanted to expand upon it here. (And fix the spelling errors a bit too.)

I realize that Mr. Foster’s comments are probably not the entirety of what he gave – just as mine are not – but I did want to point out two potential inaccuracies in what he is quoted as saying.

First off, it is an all too often sprung trap to say that social media is used exclusively or even in majority by 18-34 year olds because this is factually inaccurate. A simple online search will show you that 18-34 year olds make up about only 25-30% of social media users.

The image above comes from a detailed analysis that Pingdom did of social media user demographics in February 2010.

As part of that study it became clear that it was impossible to generalize as Mr. Foster is attempting to do. The breakdown of age demographics varies wildly depending on the social media service you are discussing. For example, the chart below shows that Bebo (a site that to the best of my knowledge no candidates are an active member of) has a about 62% of it’s users under the age of 35. While on the other end of the spectrum you can see that LinkedIn, an online resume and networking site (which I know several candidates are active users of) has about 22% of its user being under the age of 35.

To give more than one source I would also point readers toward The Heavy Chef Project, whose tagline is “demystifying digital marketing”. They point to recent findings by the Nielsen Company (yes THAT Nielsen) on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn demographics, which align with the numbers above.

It is possible to find numbers which have a higher than average 18-35 year old participation in social media (when compared to the population as a whole demographics) but in almost all of those cases the stats tend to be a year or two or more old. Certainly it is fair to say that 18-34 year olds often are the early adopters, but once a social media has gone mainstream – as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter have done – it is by definition going to be reflective of the population as a whole.

If we ignore the fact the first half of Mr. Foster’s statement is false, we have to deal with the second assumption Mr. Foster makes in the Metro article, that we, as a society, have done everything in our power to engage 18 to 34 year olds and therefore it isn’t worth our time to bother trying to engage them further. This is obviously not true.

The basic marketing question goes: do we spend our money on the group buying lots of product from us (who we obviously are reaching) or on the group not buying our product (who we obviously are not reaching). If you have one dollar to spend on marketing you have to choose. In the case of elections, we don’t have to.

The younger demographic has proven they are hyper-engaged within their communities – their Facebook and Twitter activity alone providing chief example. Assuming they don’t want to be part of community engagement is the lazy answer.

Instead, we should start by flipping the question on its head by asking how should we be engaging them?

When we see a block of voters trend so differently than the norm, we must ask ourselves are they not voting because they don’t want to? Or are they not voting because we haven’t done a good job of engaging them? I think in this case, it is the latter.

If the amount of information flowing through Facebook is any indication, one multiple choice question every 4 years is hardly the kind of engagement voters of this generation find beneficial. They obviously want more, and can handle more. Tools that don’t offer the kind of ongoing engagement they want aren’t worth their time. They (we?) are a generation that craves results. Cause and effect is what drives much of our day to day lives. People like to see input create output. This is the rationale behind many of the generational shifts we have seen over the last few decades. It is, for example, what points to younger workers willing to be more transient and less loyal to one corporation; it is also what’s partially at play in the decrease of participation in organized religion in North America.

It is very easy to understand how a voter could say “my vote doesn’t matter anyway so why bother voting” when viewed through the lens of expectations. Especially when compared to the exceptions we see in our day-to-day activities.

In short, times have changed and our style of democracy hasn’t. Access to our governmental system remains virtually the same today as it was in 1867 – the first year of Confederation. Input designed for improvement is still relegated to one vote per person every few years. This is despite the fact that we have greatly sped up the ability to transfer information from person to person to organization. In 1867 the only option to send a copy of something important from Vancouver to Ottawa was to send a messenger via horseback. The journey took weeks. Now I can just attach it to an email and you will have it in seconds.

That is a fundamental shift in expectation from the general public. One our system of government has had major trouble keeping up with.

I agree it is easy to ignore root causes and simply say “18 to 34 year olds aren’t engaged so we shouldn’t even try” as Mr. Foster suggests in his comment. But even a slightly deeper look shows us that we are hardly even trying to engage them.

So should candidates do as Mr. Foster suggests and ignore the 18 – 34 demographic? Or do they follow the lead of David Plouffe, Joe Rospars and Chris Hughes (Obama for America) and create value that encourages a voter to engage in the way they want to?

It is not a question of how engaged a group of voters are, but instead a question of the value that group sees. Social media is the perfect tool to gauge this because social media is all about value. If you have it, you are embraced, if you don’t, you are ignored. And that is the what voting is all about too.

As a result, I think social media is the perfect tool to reach a group of potential voters in a way that speaks to them. If that isn’t a great reason to use social media as part of an election toolkit, I don’t know what is.