After it was over, the 2008 U.S. presidential election came to be known as "the social media election"—a nod to the Obama team's tech-savvy use of the Internet to raise money and build its grassroots network. But today, with the current presidential election campaigns going into overdrive, few would dispute that 2012 is the year social media in politics has truly come of age.
Since 2008, the variety and reach of the digital tools available to supporters, campaigns and the candidates themselves have exploded, providing powerful new ways to persuade and register voters, raise money and turn people out. Republican and Democratic campaigns alike are duking it out in real time in a rapidly expanding Twitterverse and on Facebook, as well as using data-mining tools to dig into voters' online habits in order to tailor "microtargeted" messages to voters.
"There was a lot of talk post-'08 about it being the social media election," says Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign. "But the reality is, Twitter launched during the last campaign and Facebook had less than 100 million users. We were at the very beginning of what it meant to be social."
Twitter Grows Up
Twitter in particular is emerging as the real-time tool of choice for campaigns, though its agility is a two-edged sword. When Clint Eastwood addressed an empty chair purported to seat Obama at last week's Republican National Convention, the crowd wasn't the only thing that went wild. Within minutes of the actor leaving the stage, "Invisible Obama" was a Twitter account with 6,000 followers and the hash-tag #Eastwooding flooded the Twitter feed. By 9:30 p.m., Obama himself tweeted a response—a photo of him in a White House chair captioned, "This seat's taken."
By one estimate, some 90 percent of senators and House members now have Twitter accounts, as do 42 governors and more than 35 world leaders. President Obama has hosted online Twitter town hall meetings on topics such as student loan interest rates, and Twitter has its own government liaison in Washington, D.C. According to an estimate by eMarketer, the microblogging site was growing more than twice as fast as Facebook last year, at 31.9 percent—although it had about 24 million active U.S. users compared with Facebook's nearly 133 million.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's digital director, Zac Moffatt, told The Washington Post that a few hours after a topic gathers steam on Twitter, the campaign turns to Facebook to see how it is resonating in the larger universe of public opinion, and by the next day, Google search provides a retrospective of how the whole issue played. Twitter has replaced the 6 p.m. deadline associated with the traditional nightly news cycle, he said.
"Twitter has become the ultimate real-time engagement tool for our campaign," Moffat told the paper.
Dueling Social Media Campaigns
The Obama team appears to have the edge over Romney's campaign in exploiting social media tools and the Internet. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Obama campaign is using digital tools to reach voters at almost four times the rate of the Romney campaign.
Based on data gathered in a two-week window in June, the study found the Romney campaign averaged 1 tweet per day while the Obama campaign averaged 29 tweets. Obama also had about twice as many blog posts on his campaign website than did Romney and more than twice as many YouTube videos.
But there were signs the Romney campaign was taking steps to close the gap. Its official website and mobile app empower voters to volunteer, donate and fundraise, as well as stay up to date with and share campaign news with friends. Clearly, both sides are leaving nothing to chance in such a hotly contested race, and both are spending heavily on digital consulting.
A Strategic Approach
Speaking at a recent "Tech4Obama" event in Hollywood, Calif. designed to rally support from the technology community for Obama's re-election, Slaby said the whole approach to social media is different in this election. In 2008, when he was CTO for the Obama campaign, he said his team were "opportunistic consumers of technology" forced to try new things by the likelihood that they would not win a traditional campaign.
"This time around, we are much more strategic integrators of technology," Slaby said. "We spend a lot more time thinking about the problems that aren't working and trying to build solutions."
The result of such "strategic integration" is tools like Dashboard, an online field office that enables organizers and volunteers to collect data about voters both online and in person and deliver it back to a centralized campaign database; a mobile app that supports mobile canvassing, helps supporters find campaign events nearby and share breaking news, among other things; and a new Facebook app that lets voters check their registration status and encourage their friends to register.
"We're abandoning the idea of offline organizing and online organizing—it's just organizing," Slaby said.
Big Data Could Make a Big Difference
It's not just social networking tools that the campaigns are exploiting. It should come as no surprise that Big Data—a movement that's making inroads into industries as diverse as banking, retail and international shipping—is also shaping the 2012 presidential race.
Big Data typically involves data-mining tools sifting through mountains of information—in this case, voters' online habits—to find gems of actionable insight. For instance, a person who does an Internet search for Mitt Romney or his running mate, Paul Ryan, may notice a strategically placed ad or video from the Romney campaign next time they log on, urging them to donate or persuading them to vote. Such "microtargeted" ads—already a staple of product marketing—are relatively surgical in their precision compared with the blunt-instrument effect of a TV ad.
Strategists say the 2012 election could be decided by which campaign does a better job of exploiting this breakthrough approach. But, as with social media tools, it will all come down to whether voters are moved to take action.
"It's not just delivering media to more places and connecting to conversations in more places, but delivering functionality to make people more effective," Slaby says. "This is going to be a close election, and we need everyone involved doing everything they can."
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