Mitt Romney surfaced Wednesday to speak with top campaign donors about his loss, and while the big news has been his "gifts" remark, just as interesting was his discussion of how he planned to keep in touch with supporters.
"We're looking to see how we go forward with an effort to maintain a connection between all of us, to meet perhaps annually, and to keep in touch with a monthly newsletter or something of that nature," he said, according to The New York Times.
If a big-dollar donation nets you only a newsletter, is there any hope for the many thousands of his digitally savvy supporters who faithfully skimmed for the next campaign Instagram?
Right now, the @MittRomney Twitter account (1.7 million followers) is silent, as is the Romney Facebook page (12 million "likes"). The campaign's last messages on both platforms were thank-yous sent Nov. 10. And Garrett Jackson (@dgjackson), Romney's "body man," who shared intimate photos of the candidate throughout the campaign, sent his last picture of "the Gov" on Nov. 7. He's now tweeting about football and, like the rest of the Internet, the new James Bond film.
Romney, like singer Miley Cyrus in a splashy, heavily reported move back in 2009, seems to be making a clean break from social media.
The former Massachusetts governor may have lost the election, but he also amassed a significant amount of social capital, and it's being left untended. It seems there's little interest so far in maintaining the digital network his campaign built throughout the course of his presidential run—a network that could be used in any number of ways. (Yahoo News reached out to Zac Moffatt, the digital director for the Romney campaign, to see if there were any plans for the accounts, but did not hear back.)
This has not gone unnoticed. On Monday, Disappearing Romney launched; it's a site that allows users to track the slow dissolve of Romney's Facebook fan base. (Of course, not all of these were true "fans"—journalists and researchers often follow candidates on social streams to track them.)
"The Romney digital folks have been huge n00bs," Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of the Tech LadyMafia, tells Yahoo News. "There's no reason his page has to bleed this many followers."
It's not, however, entirely surprising. An ongoing question throughout the campaign has been the level of digital expertise on Romney's team. His flagship get-out-the-vote effort, Project Orca, was a spectacular disaster, and throughout the campaign Romney trailed the Obama machine on follower counts on social channels. For instance, on Twitter as of the second presidential debate, @BarackObama had 20.9 million followers; @MittRomney, 1.4 million.
(There was also evidence, though, that no strategy in the world could overcome the power of demographics: 79 percent of liberals use social networking sites, compared to only 63 percent of conservatives, according to a study released this fall by the Pew Research Center.)
Still, Romney's numbers were nothing to sneeze at. "In the old days, you had a mailing list—you never get rid of that, unless your organization structurally shuts down," says Ben Clark, head of business development for Bully Pulpit Interactive. (Bully Pulpit works primarily with Democratic campaigns, including Obama for America.) "Digital communities are no different, except with digital there is no 'off' button. So you launch a campaign, you open the conversation, it's almost impossible to walk away from that."
If you let it go, Clark adds, you risk followers being resentful. And there is no reason you can't pivot your online fan base to a postcampaign project.
Consider Sarah Palin. After the McCain-Palin ticket lost to Obama-Biden in 2008, Palin turned to her Facebook followers to promulgate her political opinions and continue to raise her profile. By 2010 she had a steady base of 2 million followers, and she now boasts some 3.4 million.
"Palin didn't lose social media steam—she parlayed it in another sphere of influence," Sow notes.
Palin has even used her follower base as leverage in her contract negotiations with Fox News. In late August, Palin posted a lengthy note on Facebook on the network's decision to cut her from its coverage of the Republican National Convention. Going public helped her get quickly reinstated. "You can go on 'Hardball,' or you can talk to your 1, 2 million supporters on Facebook," Clark says. "These are communities that can still have value if you listen to them and talk to them in the right manner."
And closing some social accounts doesn't have to mean a clean break from supporters—it can be the inspiration for something bigger. Veronica McGregor, the news and social media manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ran the Twitter account for the 2008 Mars Phoenix mission (@MarsPhoenix) using first person despite its having an end date. Careful to salt the account with links to other NASA projects, including a page listing the social accounts of other missions, she was still torn when sending the final tweet. "I sat there with tears streaming down my face," McGregor says.
But the end of the Phoenix Twitter account (it has sent out a few dozen tweets since) was the start of something else. McGregor decided to organize a "Tweet up" where followers of the agency's missions on social networks could gather in real life to meet the people and the scientists behind the accounts. NASA has now held 50 meet-ups.
Of course, nonpolitical brands "have a lot more time [and] resources" to cultivate communities after a campaign ends, Clark says. However, the basics of a good social campaign remain the same no matter the scale—and a politician's successful campaign on social can have benefits beyond electoral results. Clark points to how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg used social channels to talk to New Yorkers during Hurricane Sandy as an example of a politician using social not for re-election, but for governance.
Regardless, going dark doesn't mean you can't have a comeback. Tween sensation Cyrus shut down her Twitter account citing fatigue over the service even though, according to the rap video she released as an explainer to fans, she had 2 million followers. But she has since rejoined—and is up to an impressive 10 million fans.
Romney, at least, can relax knowing Miley has given him both a comeback model and a script for a sudden departure from the social world: "I might have some withdrawals/ I was a little obsessed/ but I'm peacing out/ and I'm leaving with this."