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Will clicks on social media ads translate into votes?

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On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threw his support behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.

People who use Twitter as a news source probably typed “Christie” into the search option to learn more. Rather than the usual mix of commentary and news stories, the first tweet that users probably encountered came from Romney himself.

“Thrilled to announce the support of @GovChristie today in NH — a national leader in the fight to reform government and cut spending,” the tweet read.

Although using social media to connect directly to voters has become old hat, candidates are now paying to influence voters at the spots they frequent online.

With an eye on increasing advertising revenue, Twitter started offering Promoted Tweets, such as Romney’s, to political campaigns in late September.

Here’s how it works: Twitter recommends people to follow based on an algorithm of shared interests. For example, it recently suggested that I follow Alyson Hurt, an interactive Web designer at NPR. Her Tweets — mostly about the intersection of art, journalism and technology — appeal to me.

That same day, however, Twitter also suggested that I follow Mitt Romney. I rarely tweet about government. I do not hail from Massachusetts. This time, Twitter was looking out for Romney’s interests, not mine. The tweet is labeled as an ad with a small-print “Promoted.” Hover over the text and the Federal Election Committee legalese appears: “Paid for by Romney for President, Inc.”

Neither Twitter nor Romney would say how much he paid for the link, but Pierre Legrain, an ex-advertising executive for Twitter, wrote online that the price would fall between a few cents and few dollars each time a person clicks on it. Romney does not appear for every Twitter user; the campaign targets “politically motivated” people, which includes those who search Romney’s name on the site, said Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director.

Twitter attracts people who Moffatt views as “hyperactivists” — or the type who will also spread Romney’s message in the offline world. Moffatt knows this, because Twitter has collected a trove of information about its users based on Internet usage.

Moffatt said, “TV is kind of a shotgun approach. [With online ads], you’re not just blasting it out there and hoping people are paying attention.”

The other problem with television: Live viewers are diminishing rapidly. A recent poll by the advertising company SAY Media reported that one in three voters had not seen any live television during the previous week. And politicians want to go where the conversation is.

Romney, for example, records short video messages and pushes them out on social media sites, including Facebook and YouTube. “You need to have digital embassies on every one of those sites,” Moffatt said.

Whether this form of advertising will be effective, or whether it will fall prey to the same arguments Malcolm Gladwell made about the efficacy of social media influencing world events (he disowned Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring), remains to be seen. There have been no major studies proving the success of online political advertising.

And in social media, all users — not just politicians — wield influence. New tools are allowing voters to tout their favored politicians. Votizen launched an endorsement tool last month on Twitter and Facebook to help people publicly vouch for candidates — and solicit their friends to get behind them.

David Binetti, chief executive of Votizen, said the service is trying to get voters to discuss and share their political choices.

We’ll have to wait until November 2012 to see if clicks translate into chads.

© The Washington Post Company