By Alicia M. Cohn and Julie Ershadi - 08/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
Social media is taking over both political conventions this year, and Democrats and Republicans are battling to prove which party can best take advantage of the new technologies.
Organizers deny that they are competing against each other, but between press-release descriptions of strikingly similar digital strategies and clear competition on the same eight social platforms, it is obvious neither wants to be left behind.
Nikki Sutton, digital-media director for the Democratic National Convention, was just as confident in her team’s strategy. “It’s always nice to know what the other side is doing, but we don’t take that into consideration in our plans.”
Democratic organizers are calling their convention “the most open and accessible convention in history” while the GOP is calling its the “convention without walls.” Both have a stated goal of opening up convention events to anyone, anywhere, so long as they have an Internet connection.
Both conventions will live-stream all events through Google and encourage real-time tweeting by attendees through high-speed Wi-Fi access. AT&T has invested nearly $625 million in permanent upgrades to the Charlotte area and $140 million in Tampa Bay.
According to Davis, new network infrastructure capabilities at the GOP convention can handle sending 37.5 million tweets per second. The official GOP hashtag is #GOP2012; the Democratic hashtag is #DNC2012.
“This is really the first convention in a really mature social-media era, social-networking era,” Davis said. “We know the [social-media] conversation’s going to happen; we want to be part of that conversation.”
The conventions have a presence on just about every social platform out there, including Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr, and both started blogging early about preparations.
“It’s important for us to meet people where they are,” Sutton said.
“Everybody has a different way of getting their news and sharing it with their friends and family.”
The parties are scrambling for both online interest and engagement.
The Republicans currently have wider audiences on Google Plus, YouTube and Twitter, but nearly twice as many people have actually viewed the Democrats’ YouTube videos and three times as many have hit the “Like” button on the Democratic National Convention’s Facebook page.
While organizers won’t name one digital tool they are emphasizing more than others, the help of Google and Skype indicates they are throwing their resources behind video.
The Republican National Convention features a digital green room located near the stage in the building where Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will accept the GOP nomination.
When speakers leave the stage, they can use this room to tweet, update their Facebook page or conduct a Skype interview.
“It’s one way of really taking what you see from the broadcast and immediately putting it in the online sphere,” Davis said. It’s an opportunity for speakers to “drive conversations with people outside of campus so they can experience the convention just the way they are.”
The conventions are also an opportunity for the social networks to take over a spotlight that has dimmed through lower viewer interest in traditional media coverage. The Wall Street Journal noted last week that Nielsen ratings for broadcast convention coverage have plummeted since 1980.
Google spokeswoman Samantha Smith said the goal at both conventions is to connect candidates with voters where they are, which is online.
“Even when they’re watching the conventions [on TV], they’re usually doing so with their mobile device in their hand or their laptop within reach,” she said.
It’s their opportunity to showcase Google Plus, a platform that has arguably become more popular with politicians than it is with average users.
The platform did not even exist during the last presidential cycle, but this year it will host convention-themed Google Hangouts, video chats with speakers, delegates, reporters and anyone else who stops by Google’s physical display areas at either convention.
Google-owned YouTube will serve as “the focal point for online activity” for the GOP convention, organizers said, and Smith confirmed that “YouTube experts” will be present to assist with the technical production of the live stream.
The benefits for Google include the opportunity to host a daylong dialogue with Bloomberg at both conventions on the Internet and free expression online, two topics that prompted their share of controversial legislation this year. All lawmakers are welcome to attend.
Mobile apps for each convention also aim to help attendees actually present at the conventions keep track of schedules and navigate local events using geo-social tools such as Foursquare. Facebook is also setting up “Photo Spots” at both conventions where attendees can upload photos instantly to their timelines.
Updated at 8:29 a.m.