If the U.S. presidential election were resolved on social media, Barack Obama would be the clear winner this year over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The Obama campaign has embraced social media, with the president holding a huge lead in Facebook and Twitter followers, and the affiliated Democratic National Committee is using private social networking tools to communicate with some campaign operatives. There's also evidence that the Obama campaign has tapped into social media analytics to gauge voter sentiment and track the popularity of the campaign's messages.
Neither campaign, contacted to discuss their social media strategies, returned messages. But some groups working on social media for the Obama campaign did agree to talk.
Obama embraced Facebook and other social media during the 2008 campaign, and this year is no different. As of Thursday morning, he had 31.4 million followers, or likes, on Facebook, compared to 10.8 million likes for Romney. The Facebook race gets closer when adding in the vice presidential candidates: Republican Paul Ryan has 5.1 million likes on Facebook, while Vice President Joe Biden has just 485,000.
On Twitter, which was just two years old in 2008, Obama's lead is more pronounced. Obama has 21.3 million Twitter followers, while Romney has 1.6 million. Of course, Obama has had four years as president, plus the 2008 campaign, to build social media followers, noted Mike Gisondi, a consultant with Socialbakers, a social media analytics firm.
On both Facebook and Twitter, Romney's posts get circulated more frequently than Obama's do, but that's probably because Obama's campaign posts many more messages, Gisondi said. Obama's Twitter account generates nearly 15 tweets a day, compared to about one a day for Romney.
"Obama is much, much more active on social media than Romney is," Gisondi said. "Obama tweets an insane amount. We don't tweet 15 times a day, and that's what we do, we're a social media company."
Romney has posted larger percentage gains of followers than Obama in recent weeks, but he's starting from a smaller base.
Beyond the pure statistics, the Democratic National Committee is using a private social media network to communicate with leaders in the U.S. Hispanic community, said Giovanni Rodriguez, CEO and cofounder of SocialxDesign, a social media consulting firm. SocialxDesign helped the DNC set up a private social network to educate and communicate with Democratic leaders in the Hispanic community who speak for the Obama campaign, he said.
The private social network, using an enterprise social network tool, is set up similar to Facebook. The DNC is distributing content to the Hispanic leaders on a daily basis, and hearing back from Hispanic users about issues in their communities, Rodriguez said. "We're able to connect a lot more efficiently, a lot more effectively," he said.
In this election, it's not enough to count your number of Twitter followers or set up social networks, however. Companies like NetBase and Topsy are monitoring social networks to measure voter sentiment.
Topsy, a social media analytics firm, has partnered with Twitter to publisher the Twitter Political Index tracking sentiment about the two major presidential candidates, said Jamie de Guerre, the company's vice president of products.
Rodriguez pointed to NetBase as an analytics company doing cutting-edge work to determine whether a group of tweets or Facebook posts has a positive or negative reaction to a candidate or, outside of election season, a brand.
The Obama campaign is using social media analytics, and it's likely that Romney is as well, Rodriguez said.
NetBase is working with one of the presidential campaigns, said Lisa Joy Rosner, the company's chief marketing officer. She wouldn't confirm which campaign, however.
NetBase has compiled an election mood meter, which tracks Twitter sentiment about Obama, Biden, Romney and Ryan, and updates it every 10 seconds. The company also tracked Twitter sentiment during the recent presidential and vice presidential debates.
The company has 13 employees with doctorate degrees in computational linguistics, and its technology to gauge the sentiment of a social media post is correct 80 to 90 percent of the time, Rosner said. Coca-Cola and Kraft are among the company's clients, she said.
To gauge voter sentiment, the NetBase engine needs to understand nuance, sarcasm, intensity and emoticons, Rosner said. NetBase also can track geography and can generally tell if the Twitter user is male or female. "You can say that one of the candidates is sick, and in some cases you're going to mean they have the flu, and in some cases, it's going to mean that they're really awesome," she said.
It's not just presidential campaigns that are embracing social media analytics, but also candidates for governor and even city council, Rosner said. "This is the fastest way to get an instant read on how voters are reacting to what's happening," she said.
Campaigns can use social media analytics to track the popularity of their talking points, but social media is just one way campaigns should engage voters, she said. "The thing about social media that I think is really, really important -- that I don't think the whole market grasps -- is that it is just another data point," Rosner said. "It's real-time, it's fresh, and it's pretty raw, because people on Twitter are pretty blunt."
Social media analysis alone doesn't win campaigns, however, said SocialxDesign's Rodriguez. Ultimately, campaigns are about getting people to vote for a candidate, and social media is one tool among many, he said.
Getting people to vote involves "old-fashioned organizing that's augmented by social," Rodriguez said. "That might be what people forget. They think if the chorus of advocates is loud enough on Twitter, it'll make a difference. I'm not sure it does."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.