SAN FRANCISCO - Contenders for the Republican presidential nomination will put social media to the test Tuesday.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are key battlegrounds for the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. As people interact with campaigns on these popular Web destinations, the pile of social data on voters and candidates grows.
That treasure trove of information has helped campaigns target their messages to voters and allowed technology companies to analyze social-media trends and make some predictions about Super Tuesday's winners.
"When you have big data in real time that streams, it gives you the ability to predict this," says IDC analyst Mike Fauscette.
Super Tuesday is election day for 10 states - Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Voters casting ballots in those GOP primaries could determine the Republican presidential nominee.
But forecasting election results based on Twitter, Facebook or other social-media sources is still in its infancy, and skeptics abound.
If they come close "I would argue it's coincidental," says Forrester analyst Zach Hofer-Shall. "There are a number of problems with it."
"It's a fascinating area of research, but it's not yet mature," says Noah Smith, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.
Attensity, Netvibes, Lithium and others provide software that allows customers to do market research based on online data. Much of this work is based on text analysis that taps into decades of linguistics research.
Using such analytics, AT&T could measure whether customers were venting on Twitter about bad service, for example, and act to reduce customer defections. Political campaigns can be analyzed in similar fashion.
Romney will be the top vote-getter in seven states - Massachusetts, Virginia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota - on Super Tuesday, according to an analysis of Twitter that Attensity conducted for USA TODAY.
Georgia will go to Gingrich, Alaska to Ron Paul and Vermont to Santorum, according to the analytics firm. "Whether or not this is true remains to be seen," says Rebecca MacDonald, Attensity's vice president of marketing. "This is what Twitter is telling us."
The research drew from more than 800,000 tweets on Twitter from the past week. The social analysis measured positive sentiment and the share of voice for each candidate.
To be sure, forecasting from social media raises doubts. All the Twitter buzz around Paul, for example, could easily be misinterpreted as a winning outcome. Twitter is "not perfectly projectable to the whole overall population," says Hofer-Shall.
Also, Twitter is something of a marketer's paradise, with influence easily gamed. "You can hire people to tweet for you and you can have it (Twitter) robo-tweet," says Bernardo Huberman, director of the social computing lab at Hewlett-Packard.
Gallup reported that Romney has a 16-point lead in the national race. Social-media analysis "is a very interesting area," says Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. "We're exploring it ourselves."
The campaigns of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul have all embraced social networking. The reasons are simple: Facebook is where people hang out; YouTube is where they watch videos; and Twitter is the spot for water-cooler banter.
"From an advertising perspective, Facebook is the flavor of the day for every political strategist," says John Durham, professor of advertising and marketing at the University of San Francisco. "They realize people are no longer in a passive media source such as television."
Romney has the edge at Facebook. His Facebook page has nearly 1.5 million "likes," and he scores well on another measure: "people talking about this," which refers to unique page views over a seven-day period.
The former Massachusetts governor racked up more than 80,000 "talking about this" points. It's a key barometer of user engagement and is closely watched, says Jan Rezab, CEO of website Socialbakers.
Socialbakers analyzes how marketers can reach targeted consumers on Facebook and Twitter, and interact with them. It has measured the engagement of followers of President Obama and the Republican candidates.
"The targeting capabilities that Facebook provides are really phenomenal," says online-ad adviser Rich LeFurgy, formerly chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau. "If you don't have a campaign around social, you're really going to be hurt."
Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, says they are using every advertising option available from Facebook. The social network's self-serve advertising platform makes it easy for campaigns to build Facebook ads that target a specific gender, age group, city and interests, such as political parties. Once the specific categories are selected, the service spits back a "cost per click" for every time somebody clicks on that advertisement.
"Facebook helps you find your most engaged members of the community," says Moffatt.
That's even been the case outside of the U.S. Ciarán McMahon, a psychology lecturer at the Dublin Business School, conducted a study last year that found candidates' Facebook popularity had an influence on Ireland's elections.
"The Facebook fans are going to be a reasonably good predictor on Super Tuesday," McMahon says. "I would be happier to be in Romney's place in those numbers."
Republican candidates are using everything from live streams and photos to status updates to engage voters and draw them into their campaigns. The end game: find supporters who contribute money and recruit others to the cause.
Debate winners usually push ahead of the pack in social media. The engagement, and buzz factor, for candidates surges after wins and debates, says Rezab.
After Santorum picked up three wins in one night in February, his Facebook page gained 9,000 fans. Gingrich's numbers climbed after his win in South Carolina in January. Romney gained traction among users after his debate performance in Florida. The opposite occurs, too, when candidates underperform.
Although Romney has about five times more "likes" than Gingrich, they are relatively close on "people talking about this," Rezab says. "The other category measures how people share data with others and evangelize."
Social interaction on Facebook is valuable to campaigns in two ways, says Katie Harbath, who works with the GOP on behalf of Facebook. It gives consumers a peek into a candidate's personality, but it also drives traffic to the candidate's website and other online properties containing donation information and volunteer sign-ups.
Gingrich uses an online phone-bank tool on his new site, Newt.org, to encourage donations and redirect users to the Facebook page of the former speaker of the House.
Santorum's campaign has used Facebook to mobilize the former senator's following. "It's been great for activating them and getting them to events and grass-roots initiatives," says digital strategist Becky Mancuso of political advertising agency BrabenderCox, which handles Santorum's social campaign.
Social media is just the latest technology that presidential candidates have embraced to spin their message and build support.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered radio. President John F. Kennedy and President Richard Nixon used television. President Obama brought social media to the spotlight in his 2008 presidential victory, establishing Facebook's and Twitter's status in politics.
Twitter provides real-time feedback on debates that's much faster than traditional polling. Campaigns are paying close attention. That's because such chatter can gauge how a candidate's message is being received or even warn of a popularity dive.
Campaigns that closely monitor the Twittersphere have a better feel of voter sentiment. That allows candidates to fine-tune their message for a particular state. "You could play to your audience," says IDC's Fauscette.
Twitter's promoted-tweets advertising has also become an important tool. "Most of the candidates that are running ads on Twitter are bidding on key words around the debates," says Adam Sharp, who manages government and politics for Twitter.
Jennifer Steen, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, says today's digital strategies mirror age-old tactics. Gathering data and targeting Internet ads is "analogous to the way direct marketers used to send political mailers," she says.
A new level of data
The rich trail of information people leave on the Internet, however, is a "level of data we didn't have before," Steen says.
Marketers can also gather a trail of information to track somebody's interest on one website and then advertise to them on another in what's known as behavioral-based "remarketing."
"With remarketing, somebody has already expressed interest but then is able to be reached elsewhere," says Rob Saliterman, a Washington-based Google account executive.
YouTube is a good place to target voters seeking information, he says. "We're seeing a lot of campaigns use paid advertising in YouTube."
But mathematicians and data junkies are striving to go beyond behaviorally targeting ads to voters. They'd like to earn bragging rights by forecasting election results.
The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in 2010 reported a study that found Twitter tweets reflect voter preferences and come close to traditional election polls.
But social-analytics experts say applying complex algorithms to Twitter data, blogs, news sites and other media isn't yet perfect for predicting politics. "Algorithms are research in progress," says Michael Wu, principal scientist of analytics for Lithium. "Sarcasm ... there's no way to actually detect that."
Still, Twitter has played a role in intelligence gathering on uprisings around the world, showing accuracy at gauging political sentiment.
IDC's Fauscette thinks that social analytics applied to politics potentially has an edge over traditional polling.
"The law of big numbers says the greater the sample size, the greater the chance of statistical significance," he says.