A new campaign by the liberal political action group MoveOn.org to place an ad on the Facebook page of every college student in the US is the opening shot of what some experts are calling a “truly epic war." The result, they say, will see social-media use in Election 2012 become far more savvy and sophisticated than it was four years ago.
The campaign, which is launching this week, starts with the student loan issue. MoveOn.org is raising money to target every potential youth vote with an interest in keeping loan rates from doubling in July.
“This is a curtain raiser for what to expect in the general election this year,” says Kevin Phelan, managing director for North America at the Meltwater Group, a social media monitoring software firm in Boston.
While social media have been playing ever-larger roles in political campaigns, “the technology available today versus four years ago is so advanced that the battle waged by the two camps should be epic,” he adds.
A key priority is a steadily increasing ability to microtarget potential voters as well as supporters and “influencers” – the social media-savvy partisans who can be leveraged for their wide-ranging contacts, says Mr. Phelan.
His firm has spent the past year working with some 100 different companies, all prepping for this final push. he says, noting advancements in "social media monitoring," known as CRM, “to gather passionate advocates and analytics will allow these digital natives to stay behind the scenes but still have a major impact on the election and media.”
The explosion of companies devoted to “scraping,” whereby computers gather and collate the tiniest bit of information about online activities, has allowed them to create a digital profile for virtually every Internet user, he says.
“So, if you have 600 friends and you have mentioned even once that you support Obama, for instance,” that campaign has the ability to track and target you in virtually your every online move to determine how and when you might be useful in getting their word out, he says.
“It may not be things we haven’t dreamt of,” says David Jackson, associate political science professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, “but it will be much more sophisticated than we have seen before.”
The pressure to evolve new strategies is a direct result of the way users adapt to being targeted. Our “filters” are getting savvier alongside technology, he says, so companies have to continually get more creative for us to get the message.
He points to President Obama’s appearance on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on Tuesday – a show that engages online users as well as traditional broadcast viewers. It was not enough for the president to simply be interviewed on the show. he says: "He was actually integrated into the entertainment, performing in one of the show’s regular sequences, "Slow-Jam-The-News."
“We will see new methods of interacting with voters, learning from them and offering new ways to get involved and share their support,” says Anthony Rotolo, professor of social media at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies in New York, via e-mail.
Expect to see both candidates attempt to leverage social media data with the potential of offering a real-time understanding of how the public feels on any issue or how candidates are doing at any given moment in a region, he adds.
While there is a notable social media disparity between President Obama and GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney – perhaps most visible on their Facebook accounts, where Romney has under 2 million “likes” to Obama's more than 26 million – the playing field has evened in unexpected ways since 2008, says Mr. Rotolo.
In the last few years, he points out, “other demographics have joined sites like Facebook, Twitter, and new networks like Pinterest in much larger numbers. This presents an opportunity for Mr. Romney to leverage social media to reach audiences who were not as accustomed to interacting in this way on social networks during the 2008 campaign,” he says.