The 140-Character-or-Less Campaign

Twitter now has the power to drive a politician's message and news coverage

With the general election all but officially begun, Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, doesn’t have time to adjust. Moffatt and his team are in unchartered digital territory, and Twitter is but one of their concerns.

Says Moffatt: “I definitely think Twitter has and will have a huge impact on this election, but it has to be recognized that, even with all the talk, even if you had the greatest Twitter strategy out there, I’m not sure you would win on that alone. In fact, I know you wouldn’t.”

Then, there’s the advertising angle. Like just about everything with Twitter, advertising defies convention. As Greenberger notes: “It is perhaps the first time in history that an ad platform is not a disrupted medium. If you think about what ads have been traditionally, they come before the content or in the middle of the content. On Twitter, the conversation is the content.”

Capitalizing on an audience that, while captive, is still very small (a recent study by Pew Research Center found that just 2 percent of Americans get their regular campaign news from the social network), Twitter has successfully leveraged the sale of Promoted Tweets, Accounts and Trends and advertisements via search.

For example, on Feb. 24 the Gingrich campaign attacked Obama for his inability to control gas prices, asserting that “real leadership can get gasoline back to $2.50/gallon” and employing the Twitter hashtag #250gas.

By March 8, #250gas was tweeted more than 35,000 times by 7,400 users, garnering 7 million impressions. The Obama campaign used Twitter’s auction-based model to bid on and advertise on Gingrich’s hashtag, which resulted in users who searched #250gas seeing an Obama ad. Political gamesmanship at its finest, and most technically savvy. We can expect further such tactics as the general election campaign proceeds.

Greenberger tells those involved with campaigns that they must “be committed to tweeting and working on the platform.” Moffatt agrees that a successful Twitter strategy requires serious commitment.

“With the message, you have to make it timely and relevant,” Moffatt says. “If we put out a tweet, it can become the largest driver to our site, and it has become a huge point for us to engage with people.” That level of engagement comes with a price: Promoted trends run roughly $120,000 per day.

That’s hardly a bargain, but the payoff can be enormous. Besides its impact on messaging, Twitter is also becoming an important fundraising tool. “Twitter was a top eight referrer to the Gingrich campaign in terms of where money was being raised,” Harris reports. “For some of my other clients, it is an even more powerful fundraising tool than Facebook.”

Still, as vital as Twitter has become for political campaigns, there is a dark side. For anyone wiling away his days and nights on TweetDeck, fatigue becomes a very real thing, for campaign staffers and journalists alike. In a world routinely grown weary of micro scoops, memes and never-ending political posturing, a social media slipup can mean lost jobs, and lost campaigns.

“There’s so much chance for burnout,” warns Harris. “I think that does scare campaigns. It is terrifying in some ways to think that anyone from my staff or anyone who has access to a campaign Twitter account could instantly tweet out to over 1 million people whatever they want to say. And once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

The issue raises real questions about the restructuring of campaigns in the social media age. Should younger staffers who are more fluent in the medium be handed the reins? Or should senior staffers who can be trusted to stay on message—and stay out of trouble—be given social media oversight?

Says Harris: “It could be 140 characters that nails the coffin, begging the question: Who do you trust?” Social strategy has become so sensitive, in fact, that the Obama campaign’s digital team refused Adweek’s requests for an interview.

At the end of the day, the position of the campaigns seems to be: Mistakes be damned—let the information flow. The question is, for how long? “Facebook has become part of the plumbing of the Internet, and I really think Twitter is right on the cusp of doing the same,” says Smith.

“Twitter has definitely embedded itself into the fabric of the Internet,” seconds Klapper.

While it is impossible to know whether Twitter will endure as a political force, what’s become clear is that 2012 is living up to the hype as “the Twitter election.”

For those ready to strap in and surrender to the roller coaster that is Twitter, the rewards can be great and the access invaluable.

But it can also quickly become a dangerous ride. Just ask Hilary Rosen.