The campaigns of Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul have all embraced social networking. The reasons are simple: Facebook is where people hang out; YouTube is where they watch videos; and Twitter is the spot for water-cooler banter.
"From an advertising perspective, Facebook is the flavor of the day for every political strategist," says John Durham, professor of advertising and marketing at the University of San Francisco. "They realize people are no longer in a passive media source such as television."
Romney has the edge at Facebook. His Facebook page has nearly 1.5 million "likes," and he scores well on another measure: "people talking about this," which refers to unique page views over a seven-day period.
The former Massachusetts governor racked up more than 80,000 "talking about this" points. It's a key barometer of user engagement and is closely watched, says Jan Rezab, CEO of website Socialbakers.
Socialbakers analyzes how marketers can reach targeted consumers on Facebook and Twitter, and interact with them. It has measured the engagement of followers of President Obama and the Republican candidates.
"The targeting capabilities that Facebook provides are really phenomenal," says online-ad adviser Rich LeFurgy, formerly chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau. "If you don't have a campaign around social, you're really going to be hurt."
Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Romney campaign, says they are using every advertising option available from Facebook. The social network's self-serve advertising platform makes it easy for campaigns to build Facebook ads that target a specific gender, age group, city and interests, such as political parties. Once the specific categories are selected, the service spits back a "cost per click" for every time somebody clicks on that advertisement.
"Facebook helps you find your most engaged members of the community," says Moffatt.
That's even been the case outside of the U.S. Ciarán McMahon, a psychology lecturer at the Dublin Business School, conducted a study last year that found candidates' Facebook popularity had an influence on Ireland's elections.
"The Facebook fans are going to be a reasonably good predictor on Super Tuesday," McMahon says. "I would be happier to be in Romney's place in those numbers."
Republican candidates are using everything from live streams and photos to status updates to engage voters and draw them into their campaigns. The end game: find supporters who contribute money and recruit others to the cause.
Debate winners usually push ahead of the pack in social media. The engagement, and buzz factor, for candidates surges after wins and debates, says Rezab.
After Santorum picked up three wins in one night in February, his Facebook page gained 9,000 fans. Gingrich's numbers climbed after his win in South Carolina in January. Romney gained traction among users after his debate performance in Florida. The opposite occurs, too, when candidates underperform.
Although Romney has about five times more "likes" than Gingrich, they are relatively close on "people talking about this," Rezab says. "The other category measures how people share data with others and evangelize."
Social interaction on Facebook is valuable to campaigns in two ways, says Katie Harbath, who works with the GOP on behalf of Facebook. It gives consumers a peek into a candidate's personality, but it also drives traffic to the candidate's website and other online properties containing donation information and volunteer sign-ups.
Gingrich uses an online phone-bank tool on his new site, Newt.org, to encourage donations and redirect users to the Facebook page of the former speaker of the House.
Santorum's campaign has used Facebook to mobilize the former senator's following. "It's been great for activating them and getting them to events and grass-roots initiatives," says digital strategist Becky Mancuso of political advertising agency BrabenderCox, which handles Santorum's social campaign.