The most common misconception around digital engagement is that the power of the Internet exists in the future. Just about everyone I talk to about digital strategy, from elected officials to interns who want to work in politics, tells me that they want to do more online because that’s where things are headed. But that perception is wrong. The Internet is the present. We no longer go online, but the online world is woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
According to the research firm Forrester, Americans now spend as much time online as we do watching television (and often those TV sets are Internet devices in their own right). The more integrated technology is in our society, the less meaning terms such as online and Internet have.
But for the savvy member of Congress (and their savvy staff), the current digital reality creates an opportunity for new levels of civic engagement and grass-roots support. By building and maintaining a few simple channels and engaging in the online space, members of Congress can build support for their legislation and allow activists and constituents to participate in the legislative process right along with them.
The first step is to re-engage online resources built up during the campaign. While your campaign’s online resources aren’t covered under franking rules and you can’t use your campaign site to conduct official business or send emails to this list from your government account, you can encourage folks from the campaign to remain involved. The Senate and House Ethics committees will have guidelines for what is allowed.
The most important resource to keep active is your email list. Supporters liked you enough that they volunteered to receive updates from you in their inbox. Your email list is populated by evangelists for you and the legislation you want to champion in Congress. Keep them updated on what you’re working on, but more importantly, give them things to do. Got a bill that you want to get out of committee? Ask them to call members who can make that happen. Want to get the word out about what you’re doing in office? Suggest that they share an article about you on Facebook.
Next, make sure that your official online properties are easy to navigate and make sharing simple. You want to ensure that your constituents can get the information they need and that those interested can spread the word about what you’re doing to their own networks. Whenever possible, make sure statements and newsletters are webpages and not PDF files. And the person assigned to keeping up your website should check frequently to make sure there are no broken links. Set up official YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts as quickly as possible.
Now that your campaign supporters are still hearing from you and your official website is flawless, it’s time to reach out to potential supporters where they are. Broadly this could mean going on a site such as Reddit or participating in a national grass-roots political blog such as Red State or Daily Kos. But I’d also suggest seeking online communities in your home state or around issues that you care about. The best way to expand your own grass-roots network is to find people where they’re congregating online, introduce yourself and get to know them on their turf.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re having a conversation and not just broadcasting. The Internet talks back, and if you’re not listening, even your biggest supporters will eventually tune you out. Some easy ways to engage are to solicit feedback, respond to questions and report back frequently on people’s concerns.
I won’t pretend that participating online as a member of Congress is easy. It takes time, attention and resources. There are campaign finance laws and congressional ethics rules to learn. And it goes without saying that not every person you encounter online will agree or be civil. But the benefits of committing to an online presence far outweigh the risks. The Internet isn’t some distant future; it’s the reality that your supporters and constituents live in. Continuing the online conversation keeps the grass roots involved in the Democratic process, and it’s the best way to communicate with your constituents because the Internet is where they are — and where they’ll continue to be.
Melissa Ryan is a digital strategist who handled blog and progressive media outreach for the Obama campaign. Follow her on Twitter @melissaryan.