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Claire Beale on Advertising: Forget kissing babies, social media is the vote winner


When Barack Obama came to power in 2008 it was on the back of what had already been dubbed the first digital election campaign. Four years on, the race for the White House has taken the use of technology to a whole new level. As the US electorate prepare to cast their vote this week, it is being bombarded by the most sophisticated multi-media campaigning ever.

Both Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney have used social media to add a warmer side to their electioneering personalities. Despite the contest still being too close to call, Obama seems to have the digital edge. With over 30 million Facebook likes and more than 20 million Twitter followers, he's way ahead of Romney, who has 10 million and 1.5 million respectively, in the social media war.

But this is not just a war of words. The contestants have used photo sharing sites such as Flickr and Instagram to underline their family-guy image by uploading pictures of their loved ones joining them on the campaign trail. Both Mrs Obama and Mrs Romney have Pinterest pages where the homespun spinning has continued, with recipes and wedding photos taking pride of place.

What social media does is create an illusion of dialogue, of listening and corresponding at an individual level – crucial in such a vast country where there's little chance of shaking enough hands or kissing enough babies to bring a human touch to your campaign. Social media also allows candidates to leverage the power of the peer-group network through likes and retweets, so voters become influenced by what their friends approve of.

Social technology has helped make campaigning more mobile. Obama's team has developed an app so that volunteers can see where registered Democrats live in their area. It provides campaign volunteers with a canvassing script and allows them to upload email addresses of likely voters and comments to send to campaign HQ.

But the least-talked about element of all this digital campaigning is perhaps the most efficient, if a little sinister for some voters: micro-targeting. Both Romney and Obama have deployed the most sophisticated data mining and web tracking tools on the market to specifically match online messages to the personality profiles of individual voters.

Because when the polling stations open for business tomorrow, it's the individuals, all 315 million of them, who will decide which candidate has fought the best campaign.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign