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.

Terry Schmitt/UPI/Newscom
President Barak Obama speaks at a "town hall" at Facebook headquarters, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (r.) in Palo Alto, California on April 20.

President Obama’s town hall meeting from Facebook’s California headquarters on Wednesday is a giant reminder of the role social media played in his first national campaign. He was the undeniable king of digital outreach back in 2008, but much has changed since then. For starters, the Republicans have had four years to catch up on all those nifty tools, from Twitter to texting. For another, those years – enough for a freshman to finish college – are a lifetime in the world of social media innovation.

So, as the 2012 election heaves into view, just what are the new tricks and tips in the political digisphere toolkit?

“We will see many of the same tools President Obama used in 2008, with many more refinements,” says Anna Ruth Williams, Senior Account Manager at Communications 21, a social media strategy firm in Atlanta. The biggest shift, she says, is the central importance of mobile communications – as in, cell phones, smartphones, and iPads. “We saw the first generation of mobile applications in 2008 and 2010,” she adds, “but in 2012 we will see far more sophisticated uses.”

Mobile gadgets, data mining, and location, location, location

The biggest leaps in the social media landscape since the 2008 presidential cycle probably center around harnessing mobile gadgets, location-based services, and data-mining for behavior-targeted marketing, says Brooklyn Law School media expert, Jonathan Askin.

The range of applications for data mining can boggle the mind. “Nothing is private anymore,” points out David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a public relations and political consulting firm, who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign. Everything – from your cell phone account information to your address book names or just about any notion that you might have tweeted about – is now being mined for marketing and political purposes, he says.

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.

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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