With the 2012 campaign a swiftly receding dot in the rearview mirror, interest in President Obama's campaign operation, now known as Organizing for Action, has taken a hit. And so has the influence of Barack Obama's massive, 33 million-follower Twitter account, created and run by OFA.
What was just a few months ago the source of the most tweeted photo in history now doesn't carry much oomph. People who watch Twitter closely — and who've been on the receiving end of recent presidential posts — say the account doesn't drive the traffic to websites the way one might expect.
Credited as an essential component of his campaign, Obama's social media apparatus was the subject of much discussion, and praise, for well-placed Twitter gems that helped to reshape news cycles.
But more than six months into Obama's second term, a tweet from the account can come and go without notice. Evidence suggests that the president's chief online messaging machine may be broadcasting into a void.
With nearly 33 million followers, @BarackObama is the fourth-most popular account on Twitter, according to Twitaholic, sandwiching the commander in chief between Katy Perry (37 million followers) and Rihanna (30 million followers). While the intrinsic appeal of celebrities over even the most recognizable of politicians makes comparison between the accounts difficult, a quick look comparing @BarackObama with @Rihanna (the account with the closest number of followers) reveals that even the most mundane posts from the pop star outperform Obama's tweets in terms of engagement.
OFA's @BarackObama feed is not the only one Obama relies on to get his message out. The White House Twitter account has about 4 million followers and has been used increasingly to spread the kind of viral-style content that has been linked with @BarackObama. But the OFA account is the one the president is known for — it bears his name and, sometimes, carries tweets he actually wrote.
An editor at a progressive news site told BuzzFeed that a recent link from @BarackObama generated only "dozens" of click-throughs, far fewer than a tweet from the outlet's own, much less popular, Twitter feed.
"There is something wrong with it," the editor said.
At the Huffington Post, Dean Praetorius, director of trends & social media, notes that, while noticeable, referral traffic from @BarackObama tweets is underwhelming, given the size of the audience.
"On the links you can check stats on, I'm seeing the 4k to 15k range," he told BuzzFeed. "Those aren't bad numbers, they certainly help, but on a lot of content that's not much better than the Huffington Post main account, which has 1/10 the followers. If it was consistently 15k, I'd count it as beneficial. So it's meh, and you know influencers (and everyone else) follow him, so the actual impact is debatable."
"That all said," Praetorius added, "we're never complaining about the President tweeting one of our links."
OFA declined to comment on the record for this story.
On Monday evening, @BarackObama tweeted a BuzzFeed post. Referral-wise, the numbers appear to be in line with Praetorius' figures. To date, the post has roughly 17,000 referrals from Twitter, with the Obama tweet as the biggest referrer. That's significant traffic, but when compared with other, smaller accounts, the ratio of click-throughs to followers received by BuzzFeed remains surprisingly low. For comparison, a recent @GameOfThrones tweet linking to a BuzzFeed story drew only five times fewer clicks (about 3,000) than the Obama link, despite the account having roughly 47 times fewer followers than @BarackObama. While the Obama tweet had over 500 retweets and 400 favorites, it moved the dial only slightly for the post — far less than you'd expect from a presidential mention.
Post-election fatigue, the narrow appeal of the subject matter — eyes are even more likely to glaze over on complicated policy issues in non-election years — and the departure of Obama's social media election team may be to blame for lower engagement numbers. On Favstar, which ranks users' most popular tweets, Obama's top-tweet list comprises entirely old material. Its newest tweets are from election night, over 200 days ago. The account has gained more than 13 million followers since then, but they don't seem to be paying very close attention.
Also plausible, however, is the well-worn theory that engagement — especially for well-branded and corporatized accounts — has an inverse relationship with follower count. In 2009, Anil Dash explored this as a member of Twitter's exclusive suggested user list and found that followers gained through promotional means "don't form real relationships or respond to the suggested users like 'normal' followers do," and as a result, they "make no appreciable difference in the amount of retweets, replies, or clicks."
OFA remains a big part of the Obama story in the second term. The White House hopes help from OFA and other allied groups will help sign up millions of uninsured for health coverage this year — a role that puts OFA at the center of making Obamacare work. There's little doubt the tens of millions of followers @BarackObama enjoys will play a part in any OFA effort, but perhaps a smaller one than OFA might hope.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at email@example.com.
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