Social-media tools provide campaigns with another, less obvious opportunity: With so much personal information now being shared online, analyzing all that personal data allows campaigns to learn more about their supporters. Campaigns can use personal data from Facebook profiles to figure out if viewers of a certain show are more likely to back a certain candidate, for example.
“Obviously, these types of studies and analysis have been done in the past. They’re not new,” Ruffini said. But with more and more people sharing personal details online, sifting through all that data could make online advertizing and messaging highly individualized.
“In many ways, this is going to be the election of big data and social data,” Ruffini said. The Obama campaign, Ruffini said, is “applying commercial-grade data mining to politics for the first time.”
Using social-media data to target voters is still in its infancy, experts say. On Facebook, the easiest way to target voters is to create a targeted Facebook page: a page for supporters living in Ohio, for example. “I think that’s going to be an intersection between the microtargeting and the message,” said Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at Campaign Solutions.
A campaign’s biggest data-collection opportunity may be through its website and apps, not through social-media platforms. Barackobama.com doesn’t just record when visitors donate or sign up to attend an event; the site also collects ‘passive’ data, like the IP addresses of computers that access the site and the location of mobile devices that interact with the campaign’s mobile app.
Experts say that e-mail is still the single best way to reach individuals and to raise money online. E-mail, Frenchman said, is “like a key” to a campaign’s database of supporters.
“With e-mail, you can really segment,” Davis said. The Obama campaign tracks who opens the campaign’s e-mails, and tailors messages to reflect whether the individual receiving the message has donated to the campaign before and the kind of events he or she has previously attended.
But these days, e-mail inboxes are overflowing, Twitter feeds are constantly updating, and most people don’t go on Facebook to find out more about a campaign—they go to look at photos of their cousin’s wedding. Social media is both a messaging opportunity and a messaging challenge -- a new way to learn about and target supporters, but also a place where opponents can seize upon and subvert a carefully crafted message.
“The question is, are the swing voters influenceable by social media? And how much does it cost to influence them? ” said Peter Pasi, executive vice president at Emotive LLC and an adviser to Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign.
This November, campaigns will fight to ensure that their candidate’s message is the last thing voters sees on their smartphones as they walk into the voting booth. Whether or not voters respond is up to them.