Twitter boasts scores of congressmen on its rolls, it helped monitor polls on Election Day and it has enabled at least one high-profile "Twitterview." But one test remains for the micro-blogging site's true value inside the Beltway: Will politicians be able to tap their networks of followers for campaign cash?
Crunching the numbers on Twitter traffic patterns suggests that the San Francisco-based site could be an effective fundraising tool in time for the 2010 midterm elections. While no official statistics are available, early data suggests that the click-through rate is in the mid single digits, delivering much better results than e-mail and other kinds of online advertising.
Jan Schulz-Hofen, CEO of the German startup Magpie and Friends, which pays Twitter users to post messages about its clients, says his service sees a 10 percent click-through rate on its posts. He argues that the high rate is the result of matching ads to users with relevant interests. Another study by Mike Seidle, head of the online marketing firm Professional Blog Service, points to click-through rates around 4 percent.
"That's a staggeringly high number if you consider that with Google ads you get 2 percent at best," Seidle said. "If I were fundraising, I'd be all over this."
Those click-through rates compare favorably with campaign e-mails, which have been a major driver of donations for three straight election cycles. David Nickerson, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who has done several studies on e-campaigning, has seen campaign e-mails with an open rate anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent and then a click-through rate for any links of 1 percent to 10 percent. Even if a candidate can match both highs, just 2.5 percent of e-mail recipients would make their way to the campaign site.
Twitter's campaign implications are unclear and still evolving. Both presidential campaigns dabbled last fall, but neither used the site to ask for donations. Since Election Day, President Obama has tweeted just four times. Matt DeBergalis, founder of Act Blue, a political action committee that raises money for progressive causes online, prefers e-mail over tweets, which are limited to 140 characters and don't support graphics. But DeBergalis still sees Twitter as another arrow in a campaign's quiver.
"Twitter's not going to replace a well-written e-mail from MoveOn that can explain in detail the reasons to support a hearing on some important issue," he said. "But there's a lot that goes into inspiring people for a successful fundraising campaign. If you're an environmentalist and you get a Twitter update every day on what a group is doing and what the current focus is, you're primed when the ask comes."
But not every lawmaker is gearing up to tap Twitter's fundraising potential. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, is one of the more prolific congressmen on the site. He's been on Twitter since last May, long before it exploded onto the national consciousness, and since then, he has racked up more than 10,000 followers and posted more than 2,000 tweets. Unlike some of his colleagues, Culberson uses Twitter for conversations: During a 54-minute tear early Wednesday morning, Culberson fired off more than 20 replies to followers on everything from Jeffersonian Republicanism to his first personal computer.
After spending nearly a year building a tight-knit community of followers, Culberson isn't contemplating tapping that base for donations.
"It's not a campaign tool for him," said Megan Mitchell, Culberson's communications director. "It's a way to make the process transparent and share ideas."
Some quick math suggests that, safe as his West Houston district is, Culberson might want to reconsider. If he sent an appeal for donations to his followers, he'd drive around 1,000 visitors to his campaign site (assuming a 10 percent click-through rate). The conversion rate for visitors who have knowingly clicked a fundraising link is high, between 25 percent and 50 percent, said Mike Palmer, an e-campaign strategist for John McCain's presidential campaign. Assuming conservatively that 250 donations result from the tweet and the average donation is $50 (Obama's online average was $80), one tweet might drum up $6,250 -- all from a few taps on a keyboard. Tweet, reap, repeat.
Click-through and conversion rates for Twitter fundraising will certainly fluctuate depending on the strength of the candidate's relationship with followers, his or her chances in the race, and the design and effectiveness of the campaign Web site that users are directed to.
It's worth noting that the pioneers of political fundraising on Twitter haven't had much luck. Adriel Hampton made headlines last month when he announced his dark horse candidacy for California's recently vacated 10th District House seat. Hampton, an investigator for the San Francisco city attorney's office, had hoped to use the site to rake in campaign donations, but that hasn't quite worked out so far. After encouraging his more than 2,800 followers to donate $100 each, he's received 10 donations totaling about $500.
"Twitter is not a great way to raise money," Hampton said with a laugh. "The problem is that the way the Twitter stream moves, it gets lost. I could keep tweeting and tweeting, and I might get more donations, but it would also get annoying."
Mark Drapeau, a research fellow at the National Defense University and a government 2.0 consultant, warned against using social media as the bedrock of any campaign, calling it a tactic in search of a strategy.
"If you're going to run for Congress, there is nothing different about running for Congress two or four or six years ago," he said. "The tools do not make that any easier. You need ideas, money, a strong base and a little bit of luck. If you don't have that, tools like Twitter will not help you."
Any politician who can figure out a way to make serious money from Twitter would be the first, though not for lack of trying. Magpie doles out 50 cents to 13 dollars or more per tweet, depending on the number of followers a user has. But Schulz-Hofen said there are far more Twitterers than advertisers interested in Magpie. Comcast and other companies monitor Twitter to find out what customers are complaining about, but few companies have actually used it for direct marketing. Twitter itself is still in the red as it considers ways to commercialize the site.
"Everybody is sitting on the edge of their seats to find out if this can be profitable," said Paul Verna, a senior analyst for social media and entertainment at eMarketer, an Internet market research firm. "To this day, there hasn't been any concrete monetization. Nobody's making money from it yet."
But even if Twitter doesn't turn out to be a donation gold mine, the site might still have uses during a campaign, from rallying supporters for phone drives to dispelling campaign rumors. And at the end of the day, Palmer explained, Twitter has one advantage over TV spots, fundraising dinners, Google ads, direct mail and phone banks that everyone can appreciate.
"How I see Twitter is, it's free," he said. "So why not use it?"