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The Real Debate Will Take Place on Facebook and Twitter

Campaigns are gearing up to shape social media reactions in real time.
October 2, 2012

When President Obama and Mitt Romney take the stage for their first debate in Denver tomorrow night, a far more extensive shadow debate will unfold across social media. Campaigns and supporters will aim to seize the online “conversation” in a vast game of spin unfolding well beyond the telecast and media coverage.

As a sign of just how pervasive and crucial social media has become, in some states elected officials are only one degree of “friend” separation from nearly every Facebook account holder in that state, says JD Schlough, a Democratic political strategist. And by one analyst firm’s count, Twitter has 140 million U.S. users, more than 30 million of whom joined in 2012 alone. 

“All social media is a conversation, but the amount of people having that conversation in 2012 is a lot greater than it was in 2008. That conversation is going to happen whether the campaign influences it or not—so they better get their message out there and hold the other side accountable for mistakes,” Schlough says.

On Thursday morning, a growing crop of analytics firms will drill down to see which moments—which gaffes, one-liners, and key messages—resonated the most, and which social media influencers did the best job amplifying them (see “Facebook: The Real Presidential Swing State”).

It’s likely that more than 50 million people will be watching the action Wednesday at the University of Denver. And whether it was Richard Nixon’s haggard look in 1960 or Ronald Reagan’s dismissive “There you go again” line against Jimmy Carter in 1980, experience shows that a single impression or one-liner can carry or ruin the night for either candidate.

This could be especially evident online. During the Republican presidential debates in Iowa last fall, when Mitt Romney made his infamous $10,000 bet with Rick Perry, playing into the stereotype of him as a clueless plutocrat, this spawned some 3,400 tweets. And the Democratic National Committee poured gas on the fire, creating the hashtag #what10Kbuys, which became a trending topic.

In terms of his online and mobile presence, the president has a strong advantage. According to figures from Nielsen, had 6.4 million unique visitors in August 2012, reaching 2.9 percent of Americans who were online that month. had 3.3 million unique visitors during that time, about 1.5 percent of the American population online. On mobile, the figures were similar. Obama’s official app and mobile website had 1.8 million unique users during August, from Android and iPhone owners in the United States.—which includes both mobile apps and Web—had only 881,000 unique U.S. users.

On social media platforms highly influential tweeters can make all the difference, and a growing number of firms aim to identify which Twitter members are driving the conversation—ranking people by followers, frequency of tweeting, and frequency with which their tweets are further distributed.

Earlier this year PeopleBrowsr, a San Francisco-based analytics company, analyzed how influencers helped launch public campaign against Chik-Fil-A, the fastfood restaurant whose president drew fire from some quarters for donating to right-wing groups that opposed same-sex marriage.

This influence can spill into mainstream media coverage. On July 17, the Chik-Fil-A topic was mostly remarked upon by noncelebrities and a few gay activist groups. The following day the tweets came from journalist David Carr and bloggers and celebrities like Pink and Rob Delaney. The day after that, the mainstream media, including the Guardian, NBC, and AOL, started covering the story.

If marketers and political campaigns can determine which influencers have the biggest sway on different topic and in different geographical areas, they can wage campaigns to deliver messages to different interest groups, says Shawn Roberts, marketing director for PeopleBrowsr, which is not itself doing political campaigns.

“If they can get those influential people talking, those are the folks that will drive opinion,” he says.

Overall the goal is not just to more broadly deliver a message, but to ensure that it is delivered from trusted friends—the holy grail of marketing. After all, you are more likely to see a movie when a friend recommends it, rather than if you’ve seen an advertisement.

That’s why campaigns want to use all means possible to prime social media to distribute talking points in real-time. “If we know that people believe stuff they hear from friends more than politicians, and one of them does something stupid, or smart—or if there is a contrast on an issue—it amplifies the impact of the debate to hear and to react and add your own spin,” Schlough says. “Much like the convention, they will seek to use the social media to capitalize on the good moments and fact-check the hits the other side is throwing.”

Bluefin Labs, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that analyzes social media conversations, has been shepherding a list of 400 to 500 most politically influential people on Twitter, but has not yet done any analytics on them.

That may change after the debates. The company plans to analyze shifts in how people are taking about the race, says William Powers, who directs Bluefin’s The Crowdwire blog. “Are they just looking at it as a political race, as a race between celebrities, or are they looking at it as a contest over positions on the issues? Let’s face it, the bigger questions are: What are these guys going to do when they have power?” The first analytics might be posted Thursday, after the debate, he says.

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