Marvin Towler got people “liking” and messaging to move Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Can he do the same for Kermit Carolina’s quest to become New Haven’s next mayor?
The 45-year-old online-networking whiz has taken on that challenge.
As volunteer social-media guru for Carolina’s Democratic mayoral campaign, Towler (pictured) is applying—and rejiggering—some of the tricks he learned working for Jack Canfield, author of the best-selling Chicken Soup self-help books. He was in charge of using social media to create online buzz about the books.
“A best-selling author has a different kind of crowd than an inner-city mayoral candidate,” said Towler, named in 2010 as one of Huffington Post’s “16 People on Twitter Who Inspire The World.” The challenge with both a Canfield and a Carolina, Towler said, lies in “trying to find their voice and speaking in their voice.”
Towler first got to know Carolina’s voice as a Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) undergrad. Carolina served a president of the campus Black Student Union, Towler, treasurer. The two roomed together; Towler and came to know a parade of New Haven kids from the projects whom Carolina would bring up to offer food and help with homework. “You’re going to be the mayor one day,” Towler remembers telling him.
After graduation, Towler left the state. He got a law degree. He developed a web-marketing business, set up in California; clients included Canfield and Daphne Rose Kingma, another self-help guru. Towler returned east, sold his share of the business, started freelancing. After reconnecting with his former roommate in a visit to Hillhouse High School (where Carolina serves as principal), Towler moved back to New Haven, sharing a house with his girlfriend in Newhallville. He signed on for free with Carolina’s campaign and has started working long hours developing the candidate’s Facebook and Twitter presences (“I showed Kermit how to use Twitter”) and enlisting the netroots in the campaign.
Dressed in low-cut Converse all-stars, tan slacks, and a lime-green and yellow striped button-down shirt with open collar (“my creative guy look”), Towler was comfortable openly sharing his Team Carolina social-media strategy over coffee at his “old office,” Koffee? on Audubon. (“This was my office when I first came back to town, part of the charm of New Haven,” he said.)
“There are no secrets with social media,” Towler said. “You capture the voice. You get the right content at the right time. You get an army of volunteers.”
The “right time” for Carolina proved different than for Canfield. Carolina’s younger, urban followers tend to go online later at night than Canfield’s fans. So Towler gears Facebook postings to that time period in order to increase chances that they’ll be seen.
He’s also working with a team of New Haven college-age supporters to “push content out,” to distribute postings to try to make them viral.
Like other candidates, such as Justin Elicker and Henry Fernandez, the Carolina team has ads on Facebook, Towler said. But he said he has less money to work with, so he tries to narrow the potential audience for a Facebook ad as much as possible. Rather than pick groups of Facebook users that add up to, say, 98,000 people, he’ll more narrowly target a buy to, say, 5,000 people. Though the overall numbers of people who receive the ad is smaller, the campaign has succeeded in getting a 3 percent click rate on its ads rather than the normal 1 percent as a result, according to Towler. (Toni Harp’s campaign has done little to no Facebook advertising, according to senior adviser Chris Campbell, who’s overseeing the Harp campaign’s social-media staffers. The campaign is relying “more on organic” “likes” and passed-along postings, he said.)
Towler said he is also searching for new ways to get supporters not just to press “like” for Carolina’s Facebook page and click on postings and ads, but to get them to post content back. One of the first questions he threw out for debate: this June 28 discussion about people’s views on the city’s “#1 issue.” Towler has also crowdsourced preparation for the upcoming July 16 mayoral debate on “safe streets and safe neighborhoods” by, for instance, asking followers on social networks what questions they’d like to see addressed.
Like other campaigns, Team Carolina has set up text-message alerts for followers. But unlike, say, the Elicker campaign, Team Carolina didn’t have the money to spare to use a text-messaging SMS service. Using instead an application called Gather, marketed by MailChimp, Towler had to do more manual labor, manually compiling phone numbers from people who want alerts.
Finally, Towler has sat down with his old college roommate to show him the finer points of using Twitter himself, from hash tags to bit.ly shorteners. Carolina may not join his old friend on a Huffington Post super-tweeter list. But he’s joining him on the path to the modern campaign age.