Washington (CNN) - In 2008, Twitter was a new, fledgling platform that had yet to reveal itself as useful for campaigns and media outlets, and Facebook was still viewed as a message board for college students.
Fast-forward to 2012, when nearly every campaign - for everyone from Mitt Romney and President Obama to the local sheriff – employed targeted strategies online to raise campaign cash, advance their message, and speak directly to both supporters and persuadable voters.
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The 2012 contest, said Google’s Vice President for Public Policy Susan Molinari, was the “first real digital election” – a sentiment voiced by many digital and political experts gathered at CNN and Google’s “Exploring the 2012 Digital Election” event held Wednesday in Washington.
Online platforms acted as an “early warning system” for candidates, said Google’s Andrew Roos, pointing to spikes in search activity for phrases like “binders full of women” and “Big Bird” after they were uttered by GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Facebook’s Jamie Smolski said 2012 was the first cycle when political items had the capacity to go viral online – including the election night photo of a newly re-elected president hugging his wife that became Facebook’s most shared photo ever.
But metric trends don’t end at viral photos and funny memes. Increasingly, the web is offering predictive tools that could become essential for campaigns looking to gauge their position ahead of important contests. Charles Scrase, Google’s head of elections, issue advocacy and non-profits, said search volume had become “so prominent we’re able to predict the outcome of primary elections,” including Rick Santorum’s surprise Iowa caucus win in January.
One shift from 2008, said multiple digital experts, was how voters viewed major events on the political calendar, including the two party conventions and the three presidential debates. Unlike in 2008, when those events were largely viewed only on televisions, voters this cycle were increasingly likely to watch on multiple screens.
“T.V. is no longer commanding the full attention of the audience,” said Scrase, pointing to statistics showing 8 in 10 viewers watching debates with a companion device - a smartphone, a tablet, or a computer.
What voters do with those second screens is just as important, both for campaigns and for media outlets looking to gain eyes on their content. Scrase said voters were both fact checking candidates in real time, and connecting with fellow viewers to create a conversation.
Twitter’s Peter Greenberger said the interplay between the horizontal screen (television) and vertical screen (tablet or smartphone) was becoming critical for candidates looking to reach audiences of persuadable voters. He pointed to successes by entertainment programmers in developing online conversations around their products’ among devoted followers – including the rabid fans of the Real Housewives franchise.
“A presidential election is nothing if not the world’s greatest reality show,” he said. “Just as we’re online talking about the housewives in each city, we’re talking about the candidates and the campaigns. There’s a real opportunity for candidates to engage with voters.”
Online targeting provides “much more flexibility” than older methods like direct mail and phone calls, said Karl Agne of the research firm Gerstein, Bocian and Agne.
Voters view the internet as a more trusted source, he said, pointing to feedback from voters who say the internet as a whole is more objective since it allows them access to any and all information about a candidate or an issue.
Scrase said that phenomenon extended to the timing of voters’ online activity – which is occurring earlier than ever before.
“People want to gather information earlier,” Scrase said, saying 51% of voters were looking for information about the election more than a year before Election Day.
That early interest is part of the reason digital directors for both campaigns stressed the importance of investing in a digital effort early on. Romney’s digital guru Zac Moffatt said it would have been helpful to build their digital team further ahead of time before Romney won the nomination. When they “ramped,” as he called it, and went from a primary to general campaign, they had to expand staff and resources at an exponential rate.
It wasn’t just Moffatt who realized the benefit of investing early. Even though Obama senior adviser Andrew Bleeker was on the winning team, he said if they had to do it all over again, “we’d spend twice as much” early on.
Social media also changed how reporters covered the 2012 contest – which was marked by rapid pace news cycles and a steady flow of misinformation that was easily propagated online.
One area where Obama’s team held an advantage, said CNN’s Peter Hamby, was top members of the campaign’s willingness to participate in the online conversation. Senior Romney advisers were less visible
“Having the weight of David Axelrod come down on a story on Twitter could influence assignment editors, producers, reporters,” he said.
“They don’t just send you an email anymore,” added USA Today’s Jackie Kucinich.
– CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report