As with much social media, if politicians are to use them as tools for engaging with voters they must be used by the right people. This is not some normative sense of 'right' but the voters that are the key target of persuasive communication to encourage positive attitudes, support and eventually voting behaviour to flow to the party or individual. I admit that using social media may not solely be driven by vote winning, but there is often a strong correlation between being very active both off and online with being in a marginal constituency when looking at MPs' communication.
So can we tell if the users we are reaching are the ones we want to reach? It is very difficult, Obama had Facebook fans from across the globe, indicated by the network they have joined, but the location of those on other sites is hard to tell. Tweetminster has conducted research using Twitter, they find Labour would win an election by 37% to 27% for LibDems and 20% to Conservatives. Party is the main vote influencer (78%), out of the current options Brown is the top choice for prime minister (35%) and use of social networking by MPs influences 43%. What does this tell us?
Well clearly the respondents are not that representative, unless the major pollsters have got it seriously wrong. But Labour and the Liberal Democrats may either have a fairly committed audience on Twitter or have gained one (I suspect the former) Conservatives may not have as large an audience so it may have limited potential for them. These are also people who enjoy social networking (a bit of a no-brainer), probably use it a lot (as they responded to the survey) but also are influenced by party to follow MPs rather than the reverse. This means every MP should be promoting the party (if their strategy is to win votes) and not just themselves as the audience they are talking to are looking at the whole as a composite of the sum of the parts and not seeking personal relationships. Finally, and perhaps crucially, these users are influenced by use of social media, so the fact that parties and MPs are using the same tool as them (or at least just under half of them) is important to them.
So the tool may have an impact, but only in some ways. If the research is useful (and it is easy to criticise it) then it offers a few hints about how to use Twitter strategically. There is though a broader point, the strategic use of social media needs to take into account who the current users are, what drives usage and in particular what drives the proportion of users who do to use political or politicians profiles etc, and then what the party or MP wants from those people. A tricky ask but one that perhaps needs investigating if significant resources are to be channelled into any tools when both individual time and effort are at a premium and money to pay full-time employees is in short supply!