One distinguishing feature of the web is the opportunity it creates to engage in a direct dialogue with citizens. This can be done several different ways. For this analysis we examined the extent to which each campaign addressed specific voting groups or segments of the population, the extent to which each asked users to take action (and what they asked them to do), and the extent to which citizen response was visible (or incorporated) on the site.

By all three measures, the Obama campaign’s engagement with citizens exceeded that of the Romney campaign. For the most part, however, this was limited to the website, where such engagement was more carefully controlled. Neither campaign created much public dialogue with citizens in their social media channels.  

Tailored content: 

One of the biggest changes in the Obama website from 2008 to 2012 was the ability to tailor content and news feeds to one’s location.

Geography was one prominent way the Obama campaign allowed users to customize their digital interaction,  but the campaign also offered opportunities to join 18 different constituency groups-such as African-Americans, women, LGBT, Latinos, veterans/military families or young Americans-and receive content targeted to that constituency.

In June, the Romney campaign offered no such targeting by groups. It has since added this feature, though in a different manner. In mid-July the campaign added six voter group pages that users can choose from (they have since added three more). But users do not "join" a group and receive content thereafter. Rather, users are taken to a page with dedicated content. That content, so far, is often not updated very frequently.

This marks a shift from the approach McCain used in 2008. McCain offered 18 target voter groups in 2008 (and Obama 20). Obama’s list of groups is also different than it was four years earlier. Parents are now an Obama target group, for instance. So are small business owners and educators.

Incorporating Citizen Content

Neither campaign engaged heavily in the "social" aspect of the social media-But the Obama campaign filled its news blog with citizen content.

Nearly all of the tweets, posts on Facebook and YouTube videos originated with someone inside the campaign or a well-known supporter. Rarely did either candidate reply to, comment on or retweet something from a citizen.

On Twitter, for example, 16% of Obama’s 404 total tweets were retweets. And just 3% of all tweets (14) were retweets of citizen posts. The most prominent example of this was on June 14, when David Axelrod hosted a live Twitter Q & A consisting of 28 total tweets, 10 of which were re-tweeted questions from citizens, immediately following Obama’s speech on the economy in Ohio. 

Romney produced just a single retweet during these two weeks and it came from his son Josh, who was passing along a photo of a climber holding a Romney campaign banner on Mt. Everest.

Nor did the campaigns use two other social media platforms to project citizen content. On Facebook and  YouTube every post included content directly from the campaign itself.

There was one area where the Obama campaign heavily employed citizen content, but it was one where that engagement was fully controlled: the campaign’s news blog. It is a channel on their website where all content is posted by campaign staffers. Here the Obama team gave high priority to citizen voices.  Four-in-ten posts (42%) were written (or taken, in the case of photos) by citizens. Many of the others were written by staff but included quotes from citizens.

Many of the citizen contributions in the Obama blog spoke of how and why they became involved in the campaign or shared personal stories of how a particular policy of President Obama had changed their life.  

Others depicted ways the individual was working to garner more support for Obama, by training to become an organizing fellow, offering canvassing tips or providing advice on how to register voters.

As in the Obama news blog, posts appearing in Mitt Romney’s blog were authored by the candidate himself, members of Team Romney or prominent GOP supporters. State-level posts sometimes included photos from campaign stops but more often consisted of quotes from the candidate, state GOP representatives and a list of endorsements.

The Romney campaign generally chose not to use its news blog as a way of conveying citizen input.

Only two of the Romney blog posts between June 4-17 were written by citizens. In both cases, the author was the chairman or CEO of a business complaining that President Obama failed to understand business and free-market principles.

Initiating Activity

The next tier of interplay with citizens is asking them to take action themselves, to help campaign for a candidate. Here both campaigns engaged citizens more, though to varying degrees depending on the platform and with different emphases on what action the campaign asked for. 

Overall about half of each candidate’s posts included a request for some kind of voter follow-up activity. These calls to action were most common on the website blog posts. Every single blog post from the Obama campaign during the time studied included some call to action, as did 91% of his YouTube posts. Most, 81%, of Romney’s homepage content and 40% of his YouTube video posts had calls to action as well.  Twitter was the platform least likely to contain a call to action.  

Buttons for sharing posts through any one of the many social media platforms were standard across both websites-but it was not always the first or primary response requested.

For Obama, the primary call to action most often (51% of the time) was a request for some kind of digital-oriented response, such as watch this video, join this list or sign up to be part of a "team." For Romney the request that appeared first most often (31% of the time,), was to donate money. These tended to appear in the form of a donate button.

Social media sharing was the next most popular request. These were the first action requests in 16% of Obama’s posts and 20% of Romney’s. Two elements to rarely appear as the primary request were to vote or to send feedback.