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How candidates are selling the hashtag election

Evan Vucci/AP

The 2012 party conventions were a kind of coming-out party for Twitter as a political advertising platform.

Over the course of the conventions, both presidential campaigns, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican-leaning super PAC Americans for Prosperity shelled out an estimated $120,000 each for a Promoted Trend--a phrase or slogan like #RomneyRyan2012 or President Obama's #Forward2012 that appears on Twitter Web pages and on mobile Twitter feeds for 24 hours.

Although the six-figure dollar amount is chump change when compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on television, Twitter generates an outsized share of attention among political professionals and helps to form the narratives that pundits, journalists, and candidates will develop during and after big events. 

Tweets-per-minute for political events were repeatedly set and smashed during the conventions. Twitter users generated 14,289 tweets-per-minute in the wake of Republican nominee Mitt Romney's speech. When Michelle Obama finished speaking at the Democratic convention, the tweets were flying at a rate of 28,000 per minute. After President Obama's speech, Twitter reported a 52,757 tweet-per-minute pace.

Peter Greenberger, who heads Twitter's Washington sales office, saw the trend coming from a long way off. "The Republican primary debates, with spin room occurring in real time," offered the first hint that the platform was poised for a breakout in the 2012 election cycle, he said. 

Before the convention push, Greenberger said, trade associations accounted for a larger share of their ad revenue than did political campaigns. AARP, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and the U.S. Travel Association are a few of Twitter's association clients. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was an early adopter of Twitter advertising, using a Promoted Trend and some related Promoted Tweets to try to steer conversation about the State of the Union address in January to focus on their issues. "Our ability to win these conversations with a relatively small investment is huge for us," said Nick Schaper, executive director of digital strategic communications at the chamber. 

On a national level, Twitter gets the chamber's message out to small-business owners around the country, Schaper said. Since advertising on Twitter, the chamber's following has grown from a few thousand to its current list of more than 85,000. It also functions like a virtual version of a billboard campaign at the Capitol South Metro, reaching the influential audience of congressional staffers, policymakers, and journalists in Washington.

"We want our message to float in front of that audience. It's really powerful for us," he said. 

Candidates in statewide and local races have used Promoted Tweets, a tweet that will appear at the top of any search for a specified term or hashtag, to raise their profile or to take advantage of a news event for fundraising. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., used a Promoted Tweet keyed to the name of Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.,  after his statement about rape and pregnancy went viral. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leaned heavily on Twitter ads in the month before the Republican went before voters in a recall election, to drive home the candidate's message and urge voters to go to the polls.

Media organizations are using Twitter ads as well to build their follower lists. The Caucus blog at The New York Times, C-Span, CNN, and YouTube's Politics channel have all used the "Promoted Account"  ad unit, which places user accounts in the "Who to Follow" section on Twitter pages.

Twitter doesn't comment on future advertising buys, so it's not known if either campaign or one of the super PACs have bought up the Promoted Tweet ads for the three presidential and one vice presidential debates set for October. If the level of Twitter engagement during the party conventions is any indication, the campaigns will likely be vying for coveted slots. 

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