WASHINGTON — As more presidential candidates ask us to "like" them on Facebook, some campaign consultants argue that targeted Facebook political advertising will change the coming year's election map, from the presidential race to local elections.
This election cycle, campaigns are making much larger staff and financial investments in social media marketing, said Michael Beach, a co-founder of the Republican digital-strategy firm Targeted Victory.
"It's night and day different" from 2008, Beach said in explaining the importance of Facebook now.
Beach estimated that the average campaign spends about 25 percent of its budget on online strategy, and while he thinks the amount will increase as it gets closer to Election Day next November, the percentage will not. The online strategies will be strong supplements to traditional outreach such as get-out-the-vote campaigns and TV spots, but won't replace them, according to Pew Research Center researcher Aaron Smith.
Consultant Josh Koster, a managing partner at Chong and Koster, a progressive digital-media communications firm, said campaign budgets used to be about two things: raising money and spending it on TV.
But this year's budgets reflect today's new media market as more Americans go to the Internet for news. This is the first major election cycle that online strategy is receiving a large media budget for advertising, Koster said.
Facebook and Google are the two most popular places for big ad buys, he said.
This year, Facebook implemented stronger ZIP code targeting, Koster said, and that's changed the game. ZIP code targeting will become important during persuasion pushes for casual supporters closer to the election.
As of May, 60 percent of all U.S. adults and 76 percent of U.S. adult Internet users are on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center.
ZIP-code targeting for ads allows even "dogcatcher" races to become visible and contested, Koster said.
Leading up to November 2010's midterm elections, 22 percent of adults online used social networking sites such as Facebook to connect with campaigns or learn about the election, according to Pew.
Facebook remains a key platform for candidates because of the sheer volume of messages they can send. While email campaigns are restricted by the number of emails they can send to supporters before becoming invasive, Facebook lets the candidates reach voters several times a day, Beach said.
"Facebook and social media make it much easier to organize to raise money and to engage supporters because successful campaigns ultimately are about social organizing," said Andrew Rasiej, a co-founder of techPresident, a blog that covers how candidates use Web technology.
"If a political conversation is happening on Facebook, then to be able to donate where the conversation is happening is key," he said.
Directing supporters away from Facebook to make donations on campaign sites leads people to websites they've never heard of that don't surround them with the peer pressure of their friends' engagement. But even Facebook donation apps aren't one-step, so some campaigns prefer to direct them to campaign websites, where they have more control of the content.
Republican or Democrat, candidates are running similar campaigns on Facebook, Beach said, they're just at different phases. Republican Mitt Romney's supporter list of just more than 1.2 million is in the shadows of President Barack Obama's 24.24 million Facebook supporters. But ultimately, he said, campaigns try to copy one another whenever a new tool is proved effective.
Koster said he thought Republicans were slightly more aggressive with online ads in 2010 because they were "playing catch-up," but that it was an even playing field now.
On Facebook, it's not always about the money. Pew's Smith said Facebook users tended to be more engaged. They're more likely to vote, to attend rallies or meetings and to try to convince their friends to vote. Facebook users are five times more likely to consider themselves politically engaged than non-Facebook users are, according to Pew.
That's why applications that allow campaigns to access their supporters' data to automatically publish when supporters RSVP to events or share articles about the candidates will be important tools for campaigns in 2012, Beach said.
"Facebook and social media is like a water cooler discussion on steroids," Rasiej said.
Romney's team launched a new welcome page on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, said the campaign's digital director, Zac Moffatt.
The page isn't a typical "wall" for users to comment on. It links to videos, news, the store and other features. Moffatt said the campaign decided to go where the people were instead of waiting for Facebook users to discover Romney's website.
Moffatt said the president's huge database of names from the last six years, gathered by the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, was both an asset and an anchor to outdated technology.
Tech decisions made in 2008 would be quite different from decisions made about infrastructure now, Moffatt said.
Still, to compare Romney with Obama wouldn't be an apples-to-apples comparison, he said. Romney's online campaign has been building only since April.
Obama, however, has the advantage of powerful analytics that measure how users interact with the campaign's content, Rasiej said.
"The Obama administration has the advantage of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts," he said. "Regardless of which candidate, the Republicans are going to be playing catch-up."
Just because someone is highly engaged on Facebook doesn't mean he doesn't interact with the campaign elsewhere, of course.
"There probably aren't mutually exclusive groups," Smith said. "The people who are engaging on your website are probably engaging also on your Facebook page or YouTube channel."
Moffatt said he fully expected that there would be people who voted for Romney and never visited his website.
"Facebook has the ability to get people to take another action," Moffatt said. "It's about the timeliness of what it is you're trying to do: debates, endorsements, big news help."
Facebook is unique from other social media sites because it's not only the largest, but it also has a more demographically broad user base — a mix of ages, incomes and races — when compared with sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, Smith said.
Romney's team uses Facebook differently from the way it uses Twitter. The candidate often updates in the first person on Twitter, but Facebook is a place for a larger campaign discussion between staff and supporters, Moffatt said.
"Political campaigns are also realizing that Facebook exists beyond Facebook.com (apps, mobile, etc,) and Facebook can be a component of other political activities as well," Facebook's Andrew Noyes said. "We've witnessed Facebook integration with websites, 'check-ins' at events, mentions in speeches, links on TV ads and more."
With an NBC/Facebook GOP candidate debate approaching Jan. 8, social media has changed stagnant TV debates, Rasiej said. If a candidates makes a gaffe on TV, his or her campaign has to manage it in real time, sometimes before a debate is even over.
"Spin is being created on social media faster than it can be created by spin doctors," he said. "The candidate who doesn't pay attention to social media as they're on TV is blind."
Facebook has created a new page for the 2012 election to curate campaign information: Facebook.com/USPolitics.
FACEBOOK SUPPORTERS AS OF DEC. 6:
_ Barack Obama: 24,243,220
_ Mitt Romney: 1,207,592
_ Ron Paul: 612,210
_ Michele Bachmann: 272,405
_ Newt Gingrich: 205,351
_ Rick Perry: 171,468
_ Rick Santorum: 34,171
_ Jon Huntsman: 26,949
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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