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New social media and the 2012 election: Waaaaay beyond Facebook 2008

Watch out, Obama: Everyone else has caught up to everything you did in 2008 – and all the tools you had then have become a lot more sophisticated.

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It’s now possible for candidates to send hyper-targeted political message ads directly to Facebook pages, based on everything from your location to your taste in comedy. If, say, Newt Gingrich were planning a rally in Atlanta, he could zip the date and time to someone who lived there, but he might skip anyone who self-identified as fans of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert – comedians who tend to draw a more progressive fan base.

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The ability to track individual preferences and actions on the go will “enable unprecedented bridging of the physical and online worlds,” says Brendan Kownacki, Director of Strategic Innovation for Merge Creative Media. Everything from “QR,” or quick response codes, to mobile check-ins where users “check in” at a location and get digital badges for other rewards such as free drinks and T-shirts, will enable campaigns to communicate with and track voters in real time.

How it works

Picture this: You go to a rally. You check in via Facebook or Foursquare, taking a snapshot of a QR bar code – which instantly downloads a program (maybe visible as an app, maybe not) onto your smartphone. You think you’re telling your friends where you are, but the rally organizers have just logged your email address, Twitter and Facebook usernames, and more. Next time they want to raise money, they can text (or message) you a “We need $5!” appeal that you can respond to with a few flicks of your fingers.

Political campaigns are increasingly savvy about adapting these tools – designed for consumer marketing – into communications and fundraising strategies, says Mr. Kownacki. That QR bar code establishes a digital relationship between the campaign and the individual – and anyone she’s Facebook friends with, he notes.

Such simple and widely available tools help level the playing field financially, points out Brett Broesder, a senior account executive of connected marketing with Hill & Knowlton. “As exemplified by President Obama’s town hall, social media – such as Facebook – is used by a vast array of voters in multiple demographics, and remains an inexpensive venue to connect with people directly,” he says via email. This makes it a very valuable asset, he adds, “especially for campaigns that do not have the money that President Obama most certainly will.”

Privacy concerns

At the same time, such precise targeting and deep data mining do raise other questions, points out Professor Askin, noting that while tools may be neutral, their uses are not.

“If I were advising a campaign on social media strategy, I would be very cognizant about growing citizen concerns over privacy intrusions and the use – and perceived abuse – of personally identifiable user information,” he says, adding that he would recommend his candidate-client be vigilant not to abuse user information.

Of course, “I would be equally vigilant to expose my adversaries’ abuse of user information in behavioral marketing,” he adds.

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