Editor's note: Brad Todd is a Republican media strategist. In 2010, his firm OnMessage Inc. advised the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson R-Wisconsin, Gov. Rick Scott, R-Florida, and 10 Republicans who captured Democratic congressional seats.
(CNN) -- I get asked by political candidates all the time "what can I do to learn how to grow my Twitter following?" After last night, I have a new and simple answer. "Watch NASCAR." Or at least, watch and emulate NASCAR's savviest tweeter.
NASCAR drivers and politicians have the same objective on Twitter: grow an echo chamber of supporters for unfiltered communication to build loyalty. In one incident during Monday night's Daytona 500, a 28-year-old NASCAR driver named Brad Keselowski delivered perhaps the most useful campaign schooling on the keys to effective use of the fastest growing social media tool.
By the time most East Coast politicians were asleep Monday, a freak accident caused a 200-gallon jet fuel fire on the track in the closing stages of the rain-delayed Daytona race. Keselowski (his twitter handle is @Keselowski), used his camera phone to take a picture from his car of the disaster in front of him and then tweet it out to his 55,000 followers. His tweet went viral instantly, ballooning his Twitter following by more than 100,000 followers over the next couple of hours. As of this Tuesday afternoon (a 12-hour stretch), his following was up 300% to 201,000.
That surge makes Keselowski one of the most followed figures in racing, but also way up there in the larger world of sports. As a reference point, the winner at Daytona, Matt Kenseth (@mattkenseth), has more than 72,000 followers and racing scion Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (@DaleJr) has around 91,000.
To be sure, Keslowski's band is but a fraction of the ones behind early Twitter adopters Chad Ochocinco of the New England Patriots and Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic -- but his number is now four times larger than the Twitter following of one of baseball's biggest names, New York Yankee star Mariano Rivera (@MarianoRivera).
Mere stardom does not build a social media presence; it takes regular tweets that are good enough to inspire followers to spread them further via re-tweets to their own networks.
What can politicians take from this? Compared to nationally known politicians, many of whom are in the news every day, Keselowski's "instant" following is bigger than Rick Santorum's (147,000), closing in on Mitt Romney's 351,000, double Sen. Marco Rubio's (73,000) and double the size of the Democratic senator who is perhaps most talented at Twitter's use, Claire McCaskill (64,300).
The relative sizes of those followings put into perspective how hard it is to grow an audience, what a big move Keselowski made in just a few hours and the huge potential for those who know what they're doing on Twitter.
How did that one tweet (and the conversation that followed) do it? Yes, it was about a sensational event -- a fire during a NASCAR race. But I would argue it was something more than that. It bore all the characteristics of effective communication on this most personal broadcast medium:
1) It was authentic,
2) It was revelatory to what the tweeter was thinking and experiencing,
3) It was time-sensitive,
4) It added value to a national conversation that was already ongoing.
These same four lessons have great teaching values to political candidates and campaigns as they seek to build a following on social media and thus develop a new and powerful way to reach out to voters. A few have already heeded them. For starters, McCaskill (@ClaireCMcC) and Sen. John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) thrive on Twitter because they do their own tweeting, unlike politicians who leave Twitter duty to staff members -- it's a personal medium and authenticity is the most important quality.
Second, we got a window into Keselowski's attitude: When it works in politics Twitter reveals things about the candidate's sense of humor or values as much or more than his or her positions.
Third, Keselowski's tweet didn't wait until the next business day or until he could get to pit row. It happened on track, and in the moment.
Finally, a good tweet becomes a viral sensation beyond one's current pool of followers when it adds a new chapter to a broader conversation already raging. Keslowski's tweet didn't start a conversation about the jet-fuel fire, it fed it, and then steered it in a new direction. That's why Twitter is a must-use tool during key national events like debates, presidential speeches, major sporting events, etc. It's like having 20 million of your closest friends in your living room.
Political candidates who take Twitter seriously should be active in the conversations millions of Americans have during those big events, whether they are about politics or not. To put these two worlds together, imagine if Santorum had been the first to react to Keselowski's on-track tweet and engaged the driver's fans in "can-you-believe-it" conversation? His own following would have grown -- adding new followers he likely would never give up.
Campaigns and elected officials should work hard at developing a Twitter following that is organic and earned. It provides a mechanism to communicate directly to the people most interested in what they have to say, for free, and without the filter of a hostile opponent or a skeptical media. Any questions? Just follow @keslowski.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brad Todd.