How Scott Brown’s Social-Media Juggernaut Won Massachusetts

Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts is met by reporters and photographers on Capitol Hill.

Washington (TIME) — Scott Brown of Massachusetts was sworn into the U.S. Senate on Thursday, having overcome huge disadvantages in fundraising, familiarity and party ID in his race last month against state attorney general Martha Coakley.

But his victory suggested that Republicans might catch, or even pass, the Democrats in technological know-how in the coming campaign season. The Brown campaign employed iPhone apps, YouTube videos, hash tags and Facebook to turn a long-shot, shoestring campaign into a much broader political movement. Coakley, says Rob Willington, Brown’s social-media strategist, never knew what she was up against. “We ran circles around her,” he says. “It was incredible.”

Video was a big driver for Brown. His YouTube views hit more than half a million in the weeks leading up to the vote, compared with Coakley’s 51,000 views. And his social-media presence generated 10 times more Facebook fan-page interactions than Coakley’s, according to a study released by the Emerging Media Research Council. As a result, Brown’s name recognition zoomed in the closing days of the race, to 95% in a Jan. 14 survey from 51% in a Nov. 12 survey by Suffolk University.

But it was more than a numbers race. Using Ning, a social platform, Willington created the “Brown Brigade,” Brown’s own unique social network, which allowed the campaign to connect with grass-roots supporters. “You could also hook up with people in a brigade in your area,” says Willington. The channel worked in all directions: Brown’s staff could reach his supporters, his supporters could respond to him, and supporters could find one another to organize. The golden moment? The campaign raised $1.3 million in just one day by publicizing a fundraising blitz using those social platforms, well surpassing their goal of $500,000.

On top of all those tools, Willington organized a text-messaging network. If Coakley happened to be on the radio, for example, Brown supporters would receive a plea via text with the call-in number for questions. Opening that message eliminated the need to dial a phone number — “You just need to push ‘Talk’ or ‘Call,’ “ says Willington. Further, Brown’s staff banked on the fact that those messages might be forwarded by individuals to others in recipients’ electronic address books. “We wanted to continue to reinforce the power of personal contact among friends,” he says.

Days before the election, Google ads aided the final push. “If you were in Massachusetts, pretty much all day every day you would see a Scott Brown ad,” says Google spokesman Galen Panger. Those ads also listed regional offices, says Willington, who bet that showing local locations would make it more enticing for people to come out and help.

The morning before the special election, on Jan. 19, Brown had roughly 76,000 Facebook fans hooked onto his page and more than 10,000 Twitter followers. “I think we out-campaigned [Coakley] every step of the way,” says political director Pete Fullerton. “We were able to get out the vote in a lot of communities.”

Brown’s campaign shows social technologies organizing “the passion and drive and power of an idea,” says Ning CEO and co-founder Gina Bianchini.

Brown, by the way, now has 192,492 Facebook fans and 19,882 Twitter followers.

First published on time.com Feb. 4, 2010