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Two Romney-Ryan staffers look back on what happened at the intersection of traditional media and social media in the 2012 presidential campaign.

No one in Washington or anywhere else would dispute that social media has forever changed American politics and the political process. Its primary value has been as a way to communicate to supporters and would-be supporters. But, after consulting for the Romney-Ryan campaign on communications analytics, the research we conducted gives us something to share (in less than 140 characters). Communications professionals, take note: social media isn't just for communications. It is also a critical measurement tool.

Specifically, our research led us to conclude that the use of social media in politics is an important communications link in a larger chain that also includes traditional advertising and press coverage, with each link in the chain critical to shaping and changing the views of voters. Our conclusion is this: in order to move opinions, you must move dialogue. That can be achieved by leveraging content across paid advertising, earned media, and social media simultaneously.

As such, by monitoring and measuring social media sentiment and volume, the Romney-Ryan campaign was able to use our research to predict whether communications and advertising would move polling numbers and adjust our communications accordingly.

The result was that the Romney-Ryan campaign was able to use social media as a diagnostic tool to enhance the impact of, among others, some of the more effective advertising and communications messages of the campaign season, taking full advantage of President Barack Obama's “You didn't build that” comments and effectively neutralizing the Democratic advantage on the issue of Medicare.

Likewise, our research identified and measured when the Obama campaign's communications themes were effective. It was clear the Obama campaign was tapped into very same communications and measurement power of social media. Both campaigns recognized that harnessing the power of social media requires recognition of two realities that one can argue have changed very little in past hundred years.

First, voter opinions are formed and fortified though discussion or dialogue. Social media is a great way to get a conversation going. This includes people who are merely witnessing a discussion, but not participating in it.

Second, the news media is the gatekeeper of public opinion; a front-page newspaper or magazine story, a post from an influential blogger, and a bunch of mentions during the 24-7 radio, cable, and broadcast TV news cycle can shape attitudes more than any other medium.

So, what did we do? Essentially, we quantified the relationship between advertising (measured in gross ratings points or GRPs), each candidate's ballot support levels (Gallup's daily tracking poll), and the sentiment and volume of both social media and traditional news coverage (as measured by TargetPoint Consulting's National Dialogue Monitor).

To do so, we employed statistical models known as vector auto regressions (VARs) designed to isolate the impact each message had as well as how much time elapsed between when we launched a message and when it swayed polling numbers. By conducting this analysis, it became evident that this process of campaign communications was made-up of four interrelated stages:

#1 Origination.
Stage one includes the development of a campaign message that is smartly packaged and delivered through traditional advertising and stump speeches to the public. TV ads date to President Dwight Eisenhower's time, with other political advertising older still, so there's nothing new in the origination phase. But, we found a major utility of political advertising it its ability to “shock the system” by stimulating dialogue on a topic, issue, or theme that otherwise would not have been part of the public dialogue.

#2 Dispersal.
Stage two is “dispersal,” and it is where social media comes into play. A thoughtful political advertisement will, in just a few days, begin to take on a life of its own as party stalwarts, undecided voters, and even an opponent begin the share the ad and its message. In this respect, social media is a great tool to measure the effectiveness of political ad – if people aren't sharing it, it's not working. More importantly, social media generates dialogue, conversation, and passionate debate, which interests the news media.

#3 Amplification.
Our research consistently showed that attitudes don't change until a message moves into stage three, which is “amplification.” If a popular ad or message bounces around the Twitterati, gaining steam and credibility with each passing day, the mainstream press (who are among the most active users of social media) will eventually cover it, intensifying and validating the message and thereby shaping opinion. In fact, we've found that within about five days of an ad running, a campaign can use social media to determine if the message is working. If the social network is alight with conversation, it's only a matter of time before the news media shows interest, providing that all-too-critical third-party validation.

#4 Reinforcement.
Once the message became part of news media exchange, a campaign can ease into stage four, which is “reinforcement,” or simply more ads and speeches that underpin a winning argument.

Our work consisted of many waves of research that confirmed this pattern in a highly predictable and exact way. Take the "You didn't build that" comment from Obama in mid-July in Roanoke, VA. At the time, it generated very little in the way of news media coverage or social media discussion. About a week after the comments were made, the Romney-Ryan campaign released an advertisement. This served to “shock” the system we describe. 

Five days after the ad was public, negative social media discussion centering on Obama and this topic reached a high point. The very next day – 13 days after the remark was made and less than a week after the first ad ran, mainstream news media coverage of the president's comments reached a zenith, and polls began to show Romney directly benefiting from the attention. By tracking the messaging themes the Obama campaign employed, the exact same process and effects were quantified and demonstrated.

The lesson to be learned is that when political advertising and news media attention are aligned and repeating a similar message, public opinion moves dramatically. Social media is the bridge that connects paid advertising or campaign oratory with editorial relevance. In even simpler terms, compelling advertising or video content encourages social media dialogue, which, in turn, causes the media to take notice.

The fragmentation of the media landscape means that the traditional path from advertising and attitude change has been weakened. It is now a much more evolutionary, organic process in which ads are “released into the wild” in an attempt to start a conversation. They appear first on Twitter, then capture the attention of the press, get passed along into mainstream media coverage, and then show up later in the form of public opinion shift.

What does this mean for communications professionals? We in the communications business always talk about the integration of social media into communications and measurement. The tools and processes now exist and they have been tested and verified on the world's largest communications stage.

Taking leaves of absence from their companies, Brent McGoldrick served as director of advertising intelligence and Alex Lundry served as director of data science for the Romney-Ryan Campaign.

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