19 min Read
September 28, 2016

#ThanksObama! Tips on Social Media Management from the White House

Ashleigh Axios

Ashleigh Axios, former Creative Director at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, recently gave a webinar for Big Duck in which she offered tips for social media design and management. We’ve transcribed Ashleigh’s tips here, and shared her presentation slides, in case you missed it. Interested in catching webinars like this in the future? We invite our newsletter subscribers—just sign up here.

Tip #1: Narrow in on an audience.
If you are like many of us, you assume a wider audience is going to increase your chances of that hit moment, that viral video or massively successful campaign. The truth is that it really doesn’t work that way. When you create a product, whether it’s a campaign or webpage or video or something else entirely, really what happens is, if you aim to reach everyone with that campaign, your end result will likely be pretty generic. Instead, try to push your team and yourself to get as specific as you can. This works for everything from campaigns, web pages, videos, it works across all different types of content. Ask yourself some questions like these, who exactly are you trying to reach? What’s their age range? Where do they live? What do they do for work or for school? What do they do in their free time? What influences their priorities and choices? What frustrations do they have? Where do they go for news, community and sharing their opinion?

These are just a few questions that you can ask. You might even start with some hypotheses as your answers to these and then work towards getting confirmation on the answers or correcting some of those assumptions over time. In some cases, you may even be able to put together personas for groups of people your organization is trying to reach. Personas simply help you better visualize your audience which can feel daunting as a task by itself. They do that by simplifying the audience into an archetype that makes them more accessible. I’m going to show you some examples from the White House really quickly.

Each graphic (see slide 17)  actually spoke to a single persona. We have the athlete, the caregiver, the hipster, the jock, the social media over sharer and the hyper organized. This is probably more of a rare example that our personas ended up being the thing that was public-facing for our audience. Most of the time when you create personas, they’re for your internal use and they end up just being a reference as you say build a new section of your website. If you know your audience for that section of the website is traditional media and you know what their challenges are or what kind of information they’re trying to get, the type of devices they’re looking for that information on, that’s the background thought process that will make your work much more thoughtful.

We also made sure that on Twitter all that content fit right in the middle. Really, the whole point is if you are an athletic millennial and you read that, we’ve just made the case for you in a much more direct way about why you should get healthcare. What we found with this type of specific outreach is it tends to do better because when people feel like something applies to them more directly, they’re going to share it, advocate for it, pass it along to their friends because it doesn’t feel like this generic thing that could relate to anybody. Then you’ve got these external validators who are pushing your content for you.

Tip #2: Set goals that stretch you.
This is actually one that I tell most audiences that I speak to even if I’m talking about design specifically or content strategy. At the heart of it, what this is really saying is, if a goal is easily within reach and is just easily achievable in the time-frame indicated, with the resources that you have then it’s not really a goal at all, it’s a task.

You can easily write down as many of those types of goals as you’d like but really, creating is a to-do list and not a set of goals that’s going to challenge you and push things forward. Goals should push you a little bit beyond your known limits, there should be at least some chance that you’re not going to reach it. You can start by setting goals that are just a smidge out of your reach to see just how far you can stretch. It is when you have goals like that that push you that you’re able to innovate and grow your organization’s capabilities because you’re pushing the boundaries and you’re learning more along the way. Whether your goals are specific to marketing and communications, fundraising, advocacy or something else entirely, I think this applies across all areas. We’re going to look at one example from our team. In this instance, I’m going to talk about the State of the Union during the Obama administration. (see slide 20)

I’m not going to start all the way at the beginning because it’s been a full 8 years of state of the unions now. I’ll start in 2013 for a bit of context which is also one of the first State of the Unions that I was actively involved in. In 2013, we would of course amplify the president’s speech. We would also do this thing that we started during the Obama administration with the creative director before me, Kodiak Starr, we would add graphics to the live streamed address in real time to supplement the content that the president was delivering. The president could only say so much in his address. It’s already covering so many issue areas and is in a short period of time. The graphics supported in being able to share a bit more than the president was able to say directly. The graphics also enabled more visual interest to help capture and retain the attention of the audience and they brought to life concepts that are better seen than heard.

Think about charts or even think about the impact of being able to see a picture of somebody that the president is talking about versus just having his story. That was working really well for us. In 2013, we ended up having about 107 of these slides and these slides are done … They’re a lot of work and they’re done in a short period of time just for some context. Each one was created within a week’s time-frame. We get to see drafts  of the ever changing speech and work with policy folks to come up with what the best supplemental content would be to enhance the substance of the speech.

It was 107 of these infographics (see slide 21) that made in at the end in 2013 out of dozens that were made throughout the process and cut. We wanted to do more, we wanted to push our limits. This whole section was about setting goals that stretch you. We knew we wanted to connect with our audience and that meant far more than just putting content in one direction at them with the president’s delivery remarks, we’re also putting graphics up. The next year, we wanted to have a responsive page that fits every device and also allow people to share some of the graphics that resonated with them or be able to reply and ask questions in real time. We used Twitter’s API and we built this tool that you can see underneath here that would show a sampling of the graphic and allow people to engage.

We also somehow managed to up the ante and have 273 enhanced slides in this year which was quite a bit of work. I didn’t think we’d be able to build this tool and somehow we got it done for this 2014 State of the Union but then the next year we wanted to push it even further. We wanted to create a dynamic body of content, not just Twitter because Twitter is still a limited audience of viewership for the White House, we wanted to open up engagement to more of a population in a dynamic way. Here I’m going to show you a video of what we were able to achieve so you can see a glimpse of it. It has no sound so this is just a live video from that speech. You can see a box kind of flipped in this space, we’ve got polls and email sign ups and some of our most popular tweets all integrated. They’re all showing up live related to the substance of the speech. (See slide 23)

Now, if you’d asked us in 2013 if we’d be able to create a page that did all this, we had so many hurdles, we wouldn’t have been able to tell you that we could achieve it. I think even just a few weeks before this 2015 State of the Union, we would have said, “Well, we’re not sure, right?” It’s a true goal, it was a little bit beyond our known limits and we were pushing ourselves to achieve it. In the end, we got it and we were able to innovate. The point being you need to set goals that stretch you in order to innovate and improve your end results.

Tip #3: See failure as good data.
This goes hand in hand with the previous point because if you’re setting goals that are real and goals that are a bit out of reach at the moment, you have a big return if you are able to achieve those goals but you also have to recognize that there’s a chance of failure or probably better put, a chance that you’re simply not going to meet that goal that you’re trying to.

I want to try to reframe failure here and I think this is part of a larger movement and multiple others who are doing this. I think that nonprofits and causes are especially risk and change averse. They are afraid of failure, you guys probably know this but there’s a lot that can be learned from the tech and innovation fields from the past decade where they’re really redefining failure. What we tend to call failure is really just an opportunity to collect more data and information on what will work better for your organization and what won’t. A campaign that’s getting no traction for example, you’ve put together this full campaign for your cause and nobody is engaging, it’s just very low numbers, you’re not sure it’s working quite yet.

If viewed from the traditional lens of failure, this kind of thing could keep the leader of that project from rising to a future challenge that’s going to come their way. It could result in lowering funding for a full department, it could result in cancelling the contract of a freelancer on a project, a ton of negative things. When you look at failure through a lens of new data, you find that each campaign that wasn’t successful will have some things to glean from it for the future. Your new data may be announcing that you launched that campaign on a day with a similar event happening otherwise but you didn’t unite with that other event so you’re splitting your own traffic or you could learn that, really you should have hit pause because there was a disaster that happened somewhere and you were never going to break through the clutter and you should have chosen a different time.

Maybe you learn that your hashtag was a bit too obscure for the audience or your whole campaign should have done natively on a platform like Facebook instead of based in your website when your website doesn’t generally get a lot of traffic. Those are all types of things that maybe they’re hard lessons learned, you don’t want to be the person necessarily that is associated with that lesson learned but they’re really constructive to how you function in the future and really valuable. When you treat failure like an opportunity for data, the way your teams look at it, the lessons you get out of it and the energy that you put into trying again next time, even if it’s for an entirely different topic will be highly improved. Again, I’m going to show you a few examples from the White House from my perspective here. This first one is from a couple of years ago, it’s a little bit painful to watch, I think they called this latte-gate for a few days.

In this case, our team posted some video footage (see slide 25)  that we shouldn’t have as a team. There are actually 2 failures here. The first failure in my opinion is that there was no support of the president so that he could hands free and make a salute, the proper way. He’s in the process of on one side and he’s got his hands full, this is just not the best set up. The second failure was just that our team amplified the first failure in pushing this content out. It’s not the end of the world, what we learned was that while we want to get all of the video content out there and we’re aiming to be as transparent as possible as an administration, sometimes these small accidents, when we end up getting it out there and amplifying it, will distract the media from the more important messages of the day. We needed to have better checks and balances and processes for approving video content to be posted to keep us from emphasizing a mistake that would suppress the more important content of the day.

Another example here (see slide 26), this one’s during the correspondence dinner a few years ago when one of the slides didn’t appear for the jokes right after the president told the set up for the joke. For context, this is in front of a large in-person audience of celebrities and policy folks, it’s also in front of a live stream channels across the country and really even the globe. It certainly didn’t feel like a success when it happened, right? We left the president hanging because there was a slide deleted from the jokes at the dinner. It wasn’t the end of the world and we were able to move on from it and actually make it an opportunity by putting more stuff out there and releasing it go the press.

Tip #4: View platforms as distinct.
Many non-profits make this mistake of assuming that social media networks can have the same audiences as each other in the same features and uses. This is actually common in the private and public sector as well. The truth is they’re all different, they have different users with some overlap but all different evolving technologies and algorithms that power them and shifting landscapes which will take adaptability to navigate well. This wasn’t my specialty in the office of digital strategy but I’m going to share a few, little things that I observed. Facebook, Facebook started as a social network for college students but it’s evolved beyond that significantly. You should probably know these things, right? Personally my grandmother is on the platform and has been for years.

I think Facebook may be fighting this trend towards an older audience but the demographics are increasingly ageing so it’s become a great place to engage with anyone from baby boomers to Gen Xers and older millennials. It’s no longer the primary way to engage with centennials or the generation that’s now starting to populate colleges. I think Facebook’s great for short videos, they also perform really well if you post them natively and make sure that they work with the sound off. It’s a great place for longer stories with a thoughtful photo and for Facebook live streams. Facebook can only take a few posts per day because their algorithm doesn’t really promote all of the content to every viewer. Those are all just things to keep in mind.

Twitter hasn’t saturated the market but it’s a dominant platform for … I’m generalizing here but educated, city dwelling people who are active on current events or politically opinionated. It’s like a quick news resource for that type of audience. Short videos perform well, animated GIFs, graphics, really concise information, just like Twitter is confined to a certain number of characters. You can post a ton on Twitter each day but you really want to target your audience and try not tweeting the exact same things but respect your audience and their desire for real up-to-date content.

We created the animated GIFs and really linked them to the news of the day. This again (see slide 32) is related to the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. This animated GIF performed so well because it was timely, activating the news audience on Twitter and also had an emotional pull and was made to be consumed in a short period of time for that quick visualization in the timeline. Instagram is highly used by small businesses, celebrities, artists, designers, politicians and the sales industry. It tends to skew younger than Facebook but be a largely adult platform. It’s great for good photos, really short videos and similar to Facebook in this way. Short stories that get paired with the photos or videos. It’s also incredibly useful for niche creative works like calligraphy or character illustration or even things like travel.

You can get really creative and fun on this but try to focus in on one thing and have something that just does that one thing really well. The White House had a takeover on Instagram. A takeover really just means inviting different people, in this case it’s photographers to post content in a series in a specific time-frame. Of course these are so visually compelling and I have short stories from them and it only helps that it’s a guest authorship that’s happening. You click on each one and you can a little bit about a different photographer as well which gives kind of a new magazine feel in a way so that’s Instagram. Snapchat is a platform that’s dominated by centennials right now. It’s hard to use for folks who aren’t as familiar with the marketplace and it’s really great, I think it … At least in the White House context, I’ve found that it excels for those behind the scenes visual moments.

One of my favorite White House snapchat moments which I couldn’t capture here for you all but Lindsay Holtz took for the vice president on the road. This snapchat goes from his foot inside the vehicle when they’re in a motorcade and slowly moves up his leg and then shows him in the vehicle. I think he’s reading something. It’s just this little glimpse into this super behind the scenes moment and the beauty of snapchat is it doesn’t have to be polished or look as professional, something like Instagram so it’s really capitalizing on that moment. Now, Instagram has stories which function a lot like snapchat does in general.

Tip #5: Roadmap through the moment.
Okay so I mentioned before that the correspondence dinner slide didn’t appear and then we gave it to the press the next day and extended the moment onward into the future.

I just wanted to underline that this can’t happen unless you plan … This works even better when you’re planning for an event if you ramp up into the event and then ramp out of it. We created a little behind the scenes of it that just help us map the things that we wanted to happen before the event, the things that we wanted to happen afterwards. Your tendency is going to be to really cut stuff, to get tired after the event and not do some of your post work. If you map it out, your chances of really continuing the engagement are a lot higher.

Tip #6: Give space for emotion.
Obviously nonprofits have to communicate credibility, facts and accountability to your supporters and your critics so thinking about how to communicate emotion isn’t always top of mind. We’ve found that relying on emotion sometimes and really going back to some of the basics of Aristotle, this combination of ethos or really showing beliefs and aspiration, trust authority. (See slide 42) Pathos which shows that emotion side or beliefs and then logos which is appealing to ethics, logic and reasoning. Then when we balance all those together, the work is a lot more convincing and then motive adds something really meaningful and dynamic for your audience.

Tip #7:  Create and share the real moments.
We realized this increasingly over the course of the administration. Here, you’ll see a glimpse at the Alaska page on and our team was a big part of sending the president to Alaska to help use that space and him in a physical place that represents climate change, to help tell the narrative of climate change in a much more human and compelling way. We wanted to share those real moments and although it sounds a little counter-intuitive, you have to work to make those happen when you’re in an organization. Of course the president would love to spend time in Alaska, you really make the case why it’s important for the American people, that background isn’t likely to push forward. It was very meaningful and it connected people, it’s a lot more visual, it’s kind of interesting stuff. Have a sense of humor, this one is fairly straightforward, right? (See slide 47)

Tip #8: Have a sense of humor.
You want people to respect you, engage with you, to want to come to your social channels and follow you on those social channels. Have a sense of humor, don’t be afraid of making fun of yourself a little bit, it will go a really long way.

Tip #9: Make it dialogue.
It’s also tempting to put out information on channels like Twitter in a one directional way but you’re going to capture a lot more intention and make people a lot more engaged by having a dialogue back and forth, not just responding to somebody but giving it a few rounds.

Tip #10: Try to partner.
There’s only so much that you can do from your own brand so do what you can to find somebody who has a different audience than you, who has different capabilities than you to help carry your message through and to work with you.