Social networks played an important role in the last U.S. presidential election, but the explosive growth in smartphone usage and the introduction of tablets since 2008 could make or break the candidates for president in 2012.
As the Republican primaries heat up, the major contenders show on their official websites a strong recognition of social networking and connecting in digital ways via desktop computers. But the GOP and President Obama's campaigns are not yet making many mobile-specific connections to supporters via smartphones or tablets, analysts noted.
Some campaigns have special links on their websites for getting updates via SMS to a phone, but they don't appear to have candidate-specific downloadable mobile apps on Apple's App Store or the Android Market so far.
"Smartphones and tablets are much more mainstream now, and these devices are literally driving the Occupy movement and the revolutions in the Middle East," noted Rob Enderle, an analyst for Enderle Group. "The ways we connect to one another have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years. Candidates need a good social media campaign to win, and social media done right includes mobile, because mobile allows candidates to loop in supporters in the moment and stay in touch and respond in real time. Mobile makes social networking more important. "
Smartphones are most heavily used by people under 45, and that age group increasingly sees the smartphone or tablet as a portal to Facebook and Twitter, among other social networks, Enderle said.
Enderle said it won't be enough for a presidential campaign to build a great desktop-oriented website. It will also need a mobile-oriented site that fits graphics and text or video on either a 7-in. to 10-in. tablet or a 4-in. smartphone.
"The candidates probably need content that fits the smaller screen, or that's an audience they are not speaking to," Enderle said. "Just think, a few hundred thousand people could swing a state and a lot of these elections are pretty close. Don't forget Gore and Bush in Florida. This  election could be close, so missing out of mobile will make the difference between winning and losing."
Apple's App Store lists hundreds of news and social media-related apps, but on a recent search, none related directly to a single candidate. Analysts said news organizations will probably create specialized apps to help campaign groupies follow the candidates, much the same way that professional sports leagues have mobile apps on which fans can follow scores, players and rankings. It's even possible that the Democratic and Republican parties will offer their own separate apps for the App Store or the Android Market in coming months, analysts said.
In early 2010, more than 20 mobile apps popped up for college basketball's March Madness tournament, "so why not have similar apps to track campaigns?" asked Bill Dudley, group director of product management at Sybase365. "There would be lots of mobile engagement for candidates and news organizations to track."
Dudley, a self-described mobile guru, compiled a mobile industry forecast for 2012 that included the prediction that mobile will be a "major means of trying to win votes" in primaries and the general presidential election.
Dudley defended his prediction by noting that about 80% of one of the strongest voting blocs -- people from age 18 to 40 -- is using SMS, and about 50% of those users are on smartphones. "Why not use that good channel?" Dudley said.
Instead, candidates are likely to go the easier route of reaching individual voters through older technology, such as robocalls, the recorded voice messages sent through random dialing to land lines and mobile phones.
"Robocalls are so 1990s," Dudley said. "Come on, people, this is 2012. Mobile is a more personal way to engage. Just look at how successful companies are using mobile."
Some analysts warned that texting and other real-time messages from candidates to mobile devices could result in spamming that would turn voters off, but Dudley said unsolicited texts violate three federal laws, which require users to opt-in before receiving those messages.
Jack Gold, an analyst for J. Gold Associates, said campaigns also need to avoid the risk of "overwhelming mobile users with too much interaction and too much connectivity ... There's a fine line to balance with the candidate's need to stay in touch with supporters and [becoming] a nuisance."
Gold said savvy political organizers need to decide if Facebook or Twitter via mobile can serve as a virtual handshake and work as a substitute for meeting and greeting a voter in person. "Certainly mobile extends the reach of the candidates far more than those they could meet personally," Gold said. "But at some point, does the mobile message just become background chatter instead of a way to reinforce the message? If all the candidates decide to campaign via mobile and I get tons of their messages, I'm likely to just discount all of them and tune out."
Dudley said Obama successfully used SMS alerts in 2008 in a targeted way to help smartphone-carrying campaign workers. With the alerts, a worker in a specific city would know what rallies or activities were planned in coming days and could relay to campaign headquarters plans to attend or not.
"Candidates need customization of that kind of functionality to mobile sites," he said. "You already have a very savvy group of mobile voters, so if a campaign is not using mobile through messaging or the mobile-enabled Web or mobile apps specifically for that campaign, then they are missing the boat, and a campaign runs the risk of not being able to reach their voters. The top candidates need to have a mobile strategy in place. They need to use the mobile channel as much as possible, with mobile sites or blogs or whatever."
Dudley added his own warning: "2012 is going to be the year that if a campaign doesn't do anything with mobile, they're dead."
The presidential candidates, including the GOP frontrunners, have shown an awareness of online registration to woo support for their campaigns. These campaign sites can be reached from smartphones and tablets, but the sites often have images and icons designed for desktops and may not be easy to read on a mobile device.
Obama's camp, however, has a set up the BarackObama.com website to launch on the iPhone with a mobile version of its larger desktop website, with a direct message -- "Are you in?" -- and a form directly underneath to leave an email address and a ZIP code.
Users are then given the choice of proceeding to the Obama campaign's "mobile menu" or the "full site." However, on this reporter's recent repeated tests of the functionality, clicking on the "mobile menu" only led back to a new "Are you in?" registration page, while clicking on the "full site" tab led quickly to a two-minute YouTube video featuring mostly young people talking about why they've gotten involved in his campaign. Other tabs provide a chance to click to volunteer or donate, among other choices.
On GOP candidate Mitt Romney's site at MittRomney.com , the opening page seen on an iPhone is apparently a mini version of the full desktop website, with a tiny image of Romney shaking hands in a crowd; the image can be enlarged with a touch gesture, revealing a space to enter an email address and ZIP code to "join and support" Romney for president. Subsequent pages on the Romney site are full desktop renderings that users must enlarge to be able to read easily.
From Romney's desktop website home page, users are offered a chance to click on an icon to receive mobile text updates about his campaign, but the button was not active on a recent test. Users are also told they can text to 466488 to get the updates. There are ways to use Twitter and Facebook connections as well.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who surged into first place in GOP polls in mid-December, also uses his full desktop website for his smartphone page, Newt.org , similar to Romney's official site. On that site, the Gingrich campaign asks supporters for an email address and ZIP code on the front page, requiring a user to stretch the image to find the sign-in spot.
However, a separate site, NewtGingrich360.com , jumps right into a social media connection with other supporters and potential supporters that is organized into various sub-sites for "activity," "my page," "members" and "forum." Members' photos and opinions are listed one after another, with some members answering an optional query for whether they plan to vote for Gingrich. One man, Marco Cervantez of San Bernardino, Calif., was recently listed next to his photo as saying: "I'm still weighing my options, but I believe I will vote for Newt Gingrich."
Below his comment is a tab to view a desktop version of the comments page, which takes the user back to a page that includes his comment and picture, but with other content on either side.
Dudley said mobile-optimized Web pages such as Obama's and NewtGingrich360.com will probably become more diverse and active in coming months. He predicted the candidates will try to outdo each other with functions and other ways to engage potential supporters.
In many ways, mobile apps, SMS and mobile Web browsing are far more intimate experiences for users than reading a candidate's website on a desktop, or watching a campaign ad on TV or listening to one on the radio, analysts noted. As such, candidates may have a stronger means of making a connection to a voter than ever before.
Computerworld reached out to the campaigns of Obama, Romney and Gingrich about their mobile campaign strategies, but none responded.
Dudley said it is still early in the campaign season to see many fully developed mobile campaign tactics, but he expects the savviest candidates will fire up their mobile campaign skills by the spring. "You'll see a lot of mobile campaigning," he said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com .
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