2012 Presidential Campaign: Tweeting Is the New Baby Kissing for Social Media Efforts

PHOTO: This screengrab taken from Twitter shows Barack Obamas fathers day tweet signed by the president using his initials "BO".PlayTwitter
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In 2004, it was blogs.

In 2008, it was Facebook.

And, for 2012, Twitter is "kind of the new kid on the block" when it comes to the emergence of new technologies into the political field, said Mark Malseed of media research company OhMyGov.

"[Twitter] is definitely reaching its maturity in this election cycle," said Malseed, executive editor and co-founder of the company that tracks and analyzes how government agencies and political figures use social media. "And the candidates; so far it seems they're still finding their voice."

Two presidential candidates took important steps in the political Twitterverse between Monday night and Tuesday morning.

First, President Obama announced that he will be writing his own tweets, rather than through a campaign staffer, designated on his account by the signature "-BO."

Those three characters establish a personal connection with Obama's numerous followers. If political Twitter accounts are generally engaged in a game of telephone, where messages are relayed through spokespeople to the public, the president is now whispering in the ear of nearly 9 million tweeps.

Heather LaMarre, strategic communications professor at the University of Minnesota, compared the strategy to a radio disc jockey or television shopping channel asking listeners to call in.

"They're trying to draw the audience by making them feel this personal one-to-one connection," LaMarre said.

But in a study she will be releasing in November, she found that such as strategy was not especially effective because it only appeals to a small segment of the population.

"The question is, if you can affect that small segment, then are those people going to become strong advocates for you and attract their friends and family, too?"

LaMarre called that person-to-person spread "reach," and she said it's nothing new.

"It's really irrelevant whether we're talking about Twitter as an actual application or Facebook or an ABC News commercial," LaMarre said. "What we're talking about is that's where the people are right now -– people are on Twitter -- and how many can you reach, how quickly."

The second development in the social media realm came from the Jon Huntsman campaign. In preparation for the bigger announcement of the day -- his presidential candidacy -- Huntsman declared the opening of his staffers' Twitter account, @Jon2012HQ, and tweeted for the first time from his own account, @JonHuntsman.

Prior to his first tweet, Huntsman already had more than 1,000 followers, and he had jumped up almost another thousand by the end of the day. The former U.S. Ambassador to China did not follow anyone as of Wednesday morning.

That made his follower-following ratio impossible to determine but, assuming he was following just one tweeter, he would have the highest ratio of all the declared candidates. That means that Huntsman ignores the highest percentage of Twitter users who are interested in what he has to say.

For offenders of that kind, non-candidate Sarah Palin is even worse. Palin has nearly 600,000 followers but only follows 118 users. By contrast, Buddy Roemer, who is soon to announce his candidacy, subscribes to the tweets of nearly half his followers. Granted, his audience is significantly smaller than Palin's, but the former Louisiana governor still manages to track more than twice the number she does.

Tweeting Is the New Baby Kissing

When LaMarre spoke with communications directors for congressmen, she found that many had no strategy for their tweeting. While the campaigns hired prestigious firms to manage mainstream communications, they left Twitter to interns and volunteers. But that might be changing.

"I think the way it has been up to now, it has been very haphazard, no strategy in place, not cohesive at all with the rest of the campaign messaging, and ill-fated in some regards because of the lack of control," LaMarre said. "But I think going forward [political figures are] learning from those lessons and that's going to change dramatically."

Obama has the fourth best record of so-called followbacks, not counting Newt Gingrich's Spanish-language account, which follows about a third of those who subscribe to it.

In her research, LaMarre said, Twitter usage practically doubled a candidate's likelihood of being elected, but it did not matter how they tweeted or who they followed. "Those were much less important than how many people followed them," LaMarre said.

But in the 2008 election, Obama's strong social media skills gave him a definite leg up on the McCain campaign.

And, symbolically, if candidates are trying to paint the president as out of touch with his constituency, it seems reasonable to question the sort of message it sends to gather hundreds of thousands of followers without adding them to their own feeds. Those voices are potential voters.

In this election, researcher Malseed said, tweeting is the new baby kissing; candidates who use it correctly will establish a bond with their readers. They will have reach.

"It's a medium built for the sound bite and those who master it are going to -- as we saw with some of the classic tweets from previous weeks -- those who master the sort of Twitter sound bite," Malseed said, "what they say is going to go far beyond Twitter."