While Republican presidential candidates exchange barbs at the GOP debates, another battle is developing behind the scenes as digital strategists use promoted tweets to influence voters in real time as they digest the day's breaking political news.
Twitter rolled out its political-advertising products in September with a pilot group of five presidential candidates and national political party committees, including former Gov. Mitt Romney. The company is ramping up its political-ad sales effort for the 2012 election cycle, when campaigns are projected to spend a record $6 billion.
Mr. Romney and Gov. Rick Perry are the only presidential aspirants deploying promoted tweets, but Herman Cain's team was using them before their candidate dropped out of the race earlier this month -- particularly to respond to the sexual harassment allegations. And in a move not directly associated with the campaign, House Speaker John Boehner used promoted tweets in November to comment on President Barack Obama's latest employment report and critique the White House's performance on jobs.
"I think what's unique [about promoted tweets] is that there are these real-time opportunities," said Mindy Finn, Twitter's strategic-partnerships lead in its political sales team.
Ms. Finn pointed out that organizations already running promoted products had jumped at the chance to bid on the keyword #supercommittee when it was trending this fall. Twitter offers more immediacy than Google AdWords, which campaigns used in recent election cycles as a rapid-response tool, buying up relevant keywords to serve ads addressing a hot-button topic when they're searched for, she said.
Last Thursday night marked the last Republican debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the second in which Mr. Perry's team has deployed promoted tweets. According to Mr. Perry's online strategist, Vincent Harris, the team has been changing up tweets in the course of the debates based on what's said. They have seen interaction rates of better than 2% -- "which you cannot get on any other platform," he said.
The primary goal of the team's promoted tweets on Thursday was to drive traffic to Establishment Insider, a Perry-backed site that accuses Mr. Romney and Newt Gingrich of sharing the president's propensity for reckless spending.
Mr. Harris said that he ran through his Twitter budget for the debates in an hour but that the @TeamRickPerry account was back up this past weekend with a promoted campaign targeting users through Twitter search and dropping tweets in users' timelines. (Twitter allows for targeting to an account's followers as well as users deemed similar to them, then by designated market area within the U.S.) Mr. Harris intends to target more specifically for Iowans with tweets from Mr. Perry's statewide bus tour.
"These ads are incredibly effective in pushing people through links to some piece of content," Mr. Harris said, adding that he thinks Twitter's political-ad products will put pressure on Google, Facebook and Bing to speed up their approval processes.
Mr. Romney's digital team has been running promoted tweets since September and has employed the tactic of buying a debate's hashtag in Twitter's bidded auction for promoted tweets in both real time and the days after the event so that messages rise to the top of results for information searches. But Digital Director Zac Moffatt said the team doesn't look to swap out tweets during a debate.
"We try not to tack back and forth during the course of the debate," Mr. Moffatt said. "We have a pretty consistent vision going in, and we execute it."
Mr. Moffatt also stressed the importance of using promoted tweets to tap into a spiking trend in the news cycle. When a story surfaced in the press about Mr. Obama's having played 1,584 holes of golf since 2009, Mr. Romney's team hustled to get a fundraising site, FortyFore.com, live the same day. They then promoted a tweet linking to it.
But last Thursday's winner in terms of capturing attention from a spiking trend could be the nonprofit advocacy group Ending Spending, which bought up candidates' names as keywords and served promoted tweets in searches of their names with links to video statements they've given on government outlays.
Eric Frenchman, a digital strategist for political shop Connell Donatelli who ran the Ending Spending effort, said that Twitter had driven half of the site's traffic in the first two days after the promoted tweets launched and that the group had seen a 25% rise in Twitter followers.
"If people are talking about Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, they might as well see these tweets," Mr. Frenchman said.