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When candidates try too hard on social media

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at The New School on July 13, 2015, in New York City.
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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at The New School on July 13, 2015, in New York City.

Pretty much all presidential candidates are using social media this election cycle to reach millennial voters. That doesn't mean all those messages are being received positively.

On Wednesday, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton called on her followers to tweet emojis describing how they felt about college debt.

It didn't go as planned.

To be fair, Clinton's team recognized their faux pas and responded with a shrug—or at least an emoticon of a shrug.

One problem: On Twitter it can be unclear whether it's the candidate speaking or a member of the team, said Jill Sherman, senior vice president of social strategy at DigitasLBi North America. Even though Clinton's Twitter profile clearly states that only tweets signed "- H" are from the Democratic candidate herself, people often don't make that distinction when statements are made from her personal account. Asking people to respond to a serious issue with emojis could be seen as dumbing down a serious issue, Sherman said.

Not everything Clinton is doing on social media has been wrong. Just this week, Clinton's team got in a Twitter battle with Republican candidate Jeb Bush's team, which involved photoshopped images calling out each other's policies. Sherman applauded the Clinton team's deft skill with Photoshop, saying this was the appropriate way to jump into a real-time conversation.


The difference between the two tactics lay in the fact that it was clear that Clinton's team was behind the photoshop callouts, where the emoji request was perceived as coming directly from the candidate.

"At the end of the day, whoever is carrying out Hillary Clinton's strategy has to respect the fact that they are employing the voice of Hillary Clinton and everything will be read as if it's coming from Hillary Clinton, and not her campaign or social strategy team," she said.

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Sherman acknowledged that the Clinton team may have been onto something when they tried to get people to respond with the pictorial characters.

One Stanford study found that about 10 percent of all tweets contain at least one emoticon, or a typographical representation of an emotion. (More specifically, emojis are actual pictures.) Engadget reported that ever since Apple iOS and Android included emoji support, almost 50 percent of Instagram captions and comments contain an emoji.

But Clinton's team could have gone about it in a better way.

"You have this powerful, older woman trying to sound like she's hip to emoji culture," Sherman explained. "Is that the best way into the conversation? A better way may have just been to ask how do you feel about student debt? Many millennials would have responded with emojis, and older people may have responded with words."

Requests for comment from the Bush and Clinton campaign teams were unanswered.

Nail Communications social media strategist Greg Shumchenia pointed out that while Twitter is a necessary tool for candidates to express what they are doing and how they are feeling, it's better used for events when people gather around a topic or hashtag. Too many times people jump onto trends without considering why they are doing it, he said.

"In that particular case, he campaign was grabbing onto something that's popular and trendy right now," he said. "I think it can come off a little disingenuous or condescending. You can see that backlash from brands. It comes across as inauthentic. Twitter is sort of built onto transparency and authenticity."

Shumchenia compared Clinton's emoji question to Chevrolet's week-long emoji takeover campaign called #ChevyGoesEmoji. He said its Twitter presence was turned into a "relentless onslaught of emoji," which it used to talk to its followers and even tweet song lyrics. He said some agency and public members commented it felt "trite and ultimately ridiculous."

"It's the danger of asking yourself what to do but not why you're doing it," he said. "Even when you delete or apologize for a tweet, the short history is someone is always seeing that and eyeing that."

Read More What Hillary Clinton is doing wrong

DigitasLBi's Sherman also noted that part of the problem with Clinton's call for emojis was that not everyone who follows her understands they are used to get people to show their emotions in a digital space. The tactic is ripe for nonsupporters to rip her apart.

"No. 1 rule of Twitter: Always account for trolls," she said. "Sometimes you're trying to incite feeling and reaction, and sometimes it's OK to invite the trolls. Just know that every action you take in a social platform is open to the global forum. Always anticipate what will this look like when this goes live. If you can stomach the aftereffects, go for it."