Politics & Policy

Facebook and the 'Like Me’ Election


Michele Bachmann wants to be your friend. So much so that her campaign is scouring your travels on Facebook for the things that matter to you most. Then she can place a customized message on your page assuring you that those things are important to her, too.

Bachmann did this to great effect in August, when she won the Republican straw poll in Iowa in part by zeroing in on the Facebook pages of potential supporters who lived nearby. Facebookers who had identified themselves as Tea Party supporters or Christian rock fans, or who had posted messages in favor of tax cuts or against abortion, found an ad from Bachmann waiting for them on their profile page in the weeks before the vote, asking for their support and directing them to a link where they could arrange a free ride to the polling place. Bachmann’s campaign says a significant portion of the people who pushed her over the top in Iowa—they won’t say how many—came as a result of the ad campaign.

While some candidates are still trying to get their heads around social media —Rick Perry has been known to block people he doesn’t like from following him on Twitter—Bachmann and other well-funded candidates, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, are putting Facebook at the center of their campaign strategies. Working with Facebook’s Washington office, they are taking advantage of just-released advertising tools the company is marketing to politicians.

The software allows candidates to target campaign ads to individuals in ways that weren’t possible a few months ago, reaching them on a site where they spend a lot of time and are less likely to tune out the pitch. “They may not know we’re looking for them,” says Rebecca Donatelli of Campaign Solutions, a social media consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., which was hired by Bachmann. “So we have to give them the opportunity to be found.”

Unlike expensive radio and TV ads, which are blasted out to thousands or millions of people and hit the eyes and ears of as many opponents as supporters, these appeals are often aimed at just a few hundred or even a few dozen potential voters who may never have expressed interest in the candidate. The ads use information Facebook constantly collects about its users to connect with people. “In the last 45 days, I’ve designed over 1,000 ads,” says Michael Beach, a GOP consultant working for Romney.

The campaigns are able to churn out so many ads because Facebook makes it cheap and easy to do, especially compared with TV spots or even Google (GOOG) Ads, which can reach many more people but not necessarily the ones most likely to respond favorably. Facebook ads can be had for 50¢ or less per click—and by counting those clicks, the campaigns know within minutes whether they’re working.

“We’ll throw out four or five different messages targeting different demographics,” says Michael Hendrix, a Dallas-based consultant who works with Donatelli on the Bachmann campaign. “You’re trying to figure out which message will drive a higher response.”

Hendrix’s latest Facebook project is what he refers to as “the gamification of politics.” In virtual reality games such as Facebook’s popular FarmVille, he sees a demographic frontier for Republicans in 2012. He has written software, to be launched later this year, that will allow FarmVille players to get active in politics within the game. Their online characters will be able to go door to door to other players’ imaginary farms, campaigning for real-life candidates and placing yard signs on their lawns. Hendrix is blunt about his intentions. “The majority of social gamers are stay-at-home moms over 38,” says Hendrix. And they vote. He hopes to use the game “to target soccer moms again.”

Facebook’s voter-sifting tools are the same as those it markets to corporations. (Sometimes the same people use the tools for politics and commerce; in addition to his work for Bachmann, Hendrix handles social media for Moët Hennessy (LVMUY), the Champagne maker.) But the pitch is different. The company has stocked its Washington operation with political pros who speak the language of campaigns and elections.

In 2007, Facebook hired Adam Conner, then a 23-year-old Democrat staffer on the House Rules Committee, to help the company break into the capital. He started out slow, teaching politicians the basics of setting up a Facebook page. Democratic politicians were happy to hear Conner’s social media spiel, but some Republicans viewed him with suspicion. So in February, Facebook hired Katie Harbath, a 30-year-old digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Around the office, they’re jokingly known as “the R” and “the D.”

Facebook’s post-industrial space in downtown D.C., where guests are invited to write on the walls with brightly colored Sharpies, may be the most un-Washington workplace in the city. “What I push with folks is that, while the fan count matters, how many people are interacting with it really matters,” says Harbath, who is one of a dozen people working for Facebook in Washington. “How many people are liking it, commenting on it, sharing it with their friends.”

Which raises an important question: Is the effort and money Bachmann and her rivals put into all this liking, commenting, and sharing bringing tangible results that can be measured in volunteers, donations, and ultimately votes next November? The answer is: They don’t know yet. No one has figured out how to “monetize the like,” says Donatelli. What Facebook provides at the moment is an efficient way to reach someone without having to reach everyone and an enormous platform to get a message across without interference from the conventional media. “It’s not in the sheer numbers, but in the intensity of your followers,” Donatelli says. She says that Bachmann fans tend to be issue-driven and feverishly post and cross-post on Facebook, keeping the candidate’s name in the conversation even as her poll numbers slide compared with Romney’s and Perry’s.

Ultimately, Bachmann’s team believes conversation will translate into action and money, like they say it did in Iowa this summer. Otherwise, they say, they wouldn’t bother wasting precious resources on it. “What’s the point of having a fan or a follower if they don’t do anything?” says Donatelli. “At the end of the day, this is a persuasion tool.”

The bottom line: Presidential candidates are targeting potential supporters with Facebook ads, which can cost less than 50¢ a click.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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