Q&A: Stuart Perelmuter on content creators in politics

Discussing Good Influence, US elections and the Polaris Leadership Summit

On 21 June MediaCat Magazine will host the Polaris Leadership Summit, bringing together thought leaders, industry experts, and innovators from the political and public sector communication industries. Ahead of the event MediaCat’s Content & Social Media Editor, Svilena Keane, spoke to one of the summit’s speakers and the founder of Good Influence, Stuart Perelmuter. They discussed the rise of content creators, their impact on the US election, and the future of political communications. 

Hi, Stuart. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and Good Influence?

Stuart Perelmuter

Hi, sure. I worked on Capitol Hill years ago, and I had a second career as a screenwriter. After the 2016 election, I felt like I needed to get back into politics and so much had changed about how we could effectively communicate with the masses at scale. It used to be that you got an interview on cable news or an article in a big paper, and you had confidence that people were seeing that and that it was impacting how they were thinking. Then, that just wasn’t the case anymore. Increasingly, people were online and the political establishment seemed to get this to some extent since there were a lot of paid ads on platforms like Facebook. But where people were really turning for information and guidance were these trusted messengers, content creators and influencers, who were talking about issues and had a real authority and a real relationship with their audience.

Near the end of the 2020 campaign season, we started to experiment with effective ways to do that and it was hugely effective. We were able to reach people not only at a massive scale, but in really impactful ways so that they were repeating the messaging. They were taking action. They were engaging with creators, and then engaging with their friends and neighbours. So the depth of the connection was almost as important to me as the scale of it. That’s really where Good Influence was born.

Now, we have hundreds of content creators in a network that we work with. They have a combined audience of over 125 million people and growing every day. We work with Democratic campaigns, non-profits, foundations — all people who are values-driven, working to make the world a better place. We can see day after day that this work is having an impact and transforming these content creators’ lives, people who have made themselves sometimes too controversial for brand deals because they’re taking stances on issues that brands don’t want to be associated with. They’ve got hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of followers, and they should be making a nice living but people don’t want to associate selling shoes or soda with them. For our purposes, it’s great and we can really change their lives.

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding content creators. Some people think it is easy or believe their only audience is Gen Z. Can you comment on these?

The really good content creators are some of the hardest-working people I know. They’re constantly searching for content. They’re perfectionists about what they’re putting out. They think a lot about effective messaging and how to connect with their audience. They are monitoring the analytics. They’re having to deal with algorithms.

I know that there’s this perception of influencers as this life of luxury. You shoot a two-minute video or one-minute video or 30-second video, and then you sit back and watch the money roll in.

At least in our world, that’s not how it works. They’re also very cognizant of it if it doesn’t come off as authentic. We have a philosophy with our creators that they should never say anything that they wouldn’t say for free, even though we always pay them. We believe this is work and the authenticity is incredibly important to them.

As for the age demographic and social media is just a space for young people, I think anybody knows that our parents and grandparents are on Facebook; Instagram is increasingly a hotbed for elder millennials, for Gen X. It is the best way to reach young people in a meaningful way, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s a statistic from 2023 that over 8 in 10 Americans bought something on social media that they saw advertised by an influencer; so, that’s not just young adults. That’s everybody from Gen Z through boomers. So that just goes to show the scale, but also the depth and the impact.

You mention impact a lot. What is the true impact of content creators?

I think everybody that we work with in our organisation, Good Influence, started either in politics or activism. And digital and social media influence was a means to achieve the goals that we were already working towards in other areas. And so we’re here because it’s effective.

I’ll give you an example. Last year in the United States, there have been no national caps on how much carbon a power plant could emit. So in most states, not all, a natural gas plant could just put as much carbon in the atmosphere as they wanted, which is horrifying. The Biden administration’s EPA proposed limits and they opened it up to a public comment period. Of course, the industry floods those public comments with comments against the initiative. We worked with a really wonderful environmental non-profit to mobilise people through our content creator network to flood with positive comments.

And we got 70,000 public comments and the rules got finalised. We then pivoted to expose the utility industry, which had publicly bragged about greening their emissions but was moving behind the scenes to kill these caps, and we got them to issue a public comment, distancing themselves from their own opinions. Various utility companies flipped and supported the Biden administration on this.

That’s just one example, but we really see that it’s not just eyeballs, likes, and shares. When we do it right with the right team, it can have a tremendous real-world impact.

Often, the issues that you’re dealing with are very complex. How do you get political messages across on platforms such as TikTok that do not allow for lengthy content?

I think that what we’ve learned is that brevity is the soul of wit. You can say a lot in a short amount of time. All the platforms are lengthening how much time you can have and we will still probably want to keep it down to a minute. A minute is enough time to get people invested in an idea that is important, and frequently, you can lead them to dig deeper into that and do it on their own terms. If they’re taking that action, then they have that personal investment.

On Twitter, we have had issues with character counts and videos. But honestly, I think that in most cases, those constraints are our advantages. Knowing that you have to keep it short forces us to really pick and choose what the most effective arguments are.

There was a study that there’s this human nature attitude where we always want to add one more point and make one more argument. We feel like every time we make a new argument, we’re adding a point to the tally. But the truth is that if you pick your strongest points and leave out the rest, it’s more of an average of strength of arguments as opposed to each new point adds to the strength of the overall. So, I think it’s actually been our friend.

You’re set to speak at the Polaris Leadership Summit on 21 June. Can you give us a sneak peek of what you will talk about?

I’m going to focus on how content creators and social media influencers have been and will be utilised in the US presidential election this year. This really is the year of the content creator in politics. In the brand world, influencer marketing has been around and effective for around a decade. But this is really the first time that the campaigns are diving in head-first. At this point, they’ve taken different approaches to that work, and it’s yielded really different results. I think that we’re about to see the differentials merge, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects the impact.

One of the things about social media is that it moves so fast and impacts low information voters who are more likely to be swayed. So, there really is a lot of time left on the table to move people. As far as the research that I’ve seen, how the campaigns utilise social media content creators over the next four and a half months really could determine who the next president of the United States is.

When speaking about social media, we cannot ignore its ability to spread misinformation and disinformation, especially during elections. What are your thoughts on this?

We as an organisation are committed to debunking disinformation. For a lot of our content creators, that’s everything that they do. AI is only going to make it more challenging, and as I said, we’re talking about a lot of low-information voters, and that’s not a criticism of low-information voters. This is my job, of course, I’ve got more information.

Other people have other jobs, families, and responsibilities, and asking people to research every single thing that they see on social media is a fool’s errand. So, I believe that it falls to us as an organisation and content creator network committed to debunking this information, to be vigilant, fast, nimble, loud and effective.

But the disinformation is not going away and I don’t see an easy answer for it other than to fight back.

Finally, considering the changing media landscape and the rise of influencers, what do you predict for the future of political communications?

I think that is a good question. During the 2008 election, email had been around for well over a decade and it had been used in marketing. It had been used for all sorts of things, including in politics. But Barack Obama’s campaign came along and said, we can build an entire fundraising and messaging operation around this. We’re going to invest in email in a big way, and they revolutionised the way that people communicate over email; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry now.

It was around before but the success that his campaign had took it to a whole other level. I feel like that’s where we are right now, influencer marketing isn’t new. It’s not new in politics, but this is the adoption year. I think that we will look back on the 2024 election and say that’s when everything changed, that these content creators had the reach and the trust to win hearts and minds in a way that I just don’t think we’ve ever had. I think we’ll see more of it and the challenges will be greater. Like you said, disinformation isn’t going away. AI is going to make it more challenging, which only makes this work more important.

Featured image: Sebastian Pandelache / Unsplash

Svilena Keane, Content & Social Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Svilena is the Content & Social Media Editor at MediaCat Magazine. She has a joint bachelor’s degree from Royal Holloway University, where she studied Comparative Literature and Art History. During her time at Royal Holloway, she was also the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper The Founder. Since then, she has worked at a number of digital and print publications in Bulgaria and the UK, covering a wide range of topics including arts, culture, business and politics. She is also the founder of the online blog Sip of Culture and a self-published poet.

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