In July, Matthew Zito analyzed more than 2.5 million online mentions of Donald Trump to understand how Americans view the Republican presidential candidate.
Zito is vice president of the social intelligence platform, Synthesio — one of several digital technology firms that have revolutionized the way candidates are able to target and understand potential voters. Using various algorithms and software programs, Synthesio and its competitors are able to mine through hundreds of millions of pieces of social media content every month to track conversations happening around the 2016 campaign.
Most political campaigns will work with firms like Synthesio to grasp what Americans are saying about them and their policies and use the data that is gathered 'in real time' from sites like Facebook and Twitter to adjust their messages accordingly.
Will Conway, a lead political organizer for the software platform NationBuilder, recently attributed this changing landscape in campaign communications to the emergence of digital technology.
"It's basically going from yelling at people, to listening to people," Conway told NPR earlier this week.
Zito says that one of the biggest changes is how swiftly campaigns are able to collect data simply due to the increased availability of Americans' opinions.
"If you wanted to get 10,000 people's opinions you'd have to do a poll, or survey, or an interest group, and that's a very time consuming process," Zito told the Washington Examiner. "The brilliant thing about social media is that people are actively giving their opinions not just on political topics, but on any topic you could possibly imagine."
For example, data on Trump that Zito pulled from social media revealed that the fallout Trump's comments about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was far less enduring than some may have guessed. In fact, the negative backlash petered off in less than a day on the social-networking site Twitter, according to the data obtained by the Examiner.
According to Zito, other GOP candidates could have used that same data to develop targeted ad campaigns toward users who may have continued to mention the real estate magnate in unfavorable terms following his remarks about McCain.
"Since all of these conversations are happening in public, you can do a targeted ad campaign towards people who have publicly tweeted that they don't like [Donald Trump] and send them an ad that says, 'Hey, if you don't like [Donald Trump], then maybe you should take a look at so and so,'" he explained.
In addition to giving candidates the opportunity to develop a better grasp on voters' attitudes, Jordan Lieberman, president of the political advertising platform CampaignGrid,says that the data gleaned from social networking sites provides a more detailed look at voters themselves.
While campaigns were previously privy to just static data, which ranged from information on a voter's age to details on the type of vehicle they own, they are now able to interact with groups of voters who may share certain interests or characteristics.
"Voter history and party affiliation have always been important, but now we see campaigns looking at pending third party data," Lieberman told the Examiner. "Things like homeownership, whether a voter has children, if they have a certain net worth – that information is more valuable nowadays."
Not only has social media usage allowed campaigns to gather data in new ways, it has also changed the way campaigns are influencing voters. While larger quantities of data are being collected through social media, more ads are appearing on the popular networking sites as well.
"The velocity of change in the last two campaign cycles is significant," Lieberman said. "Billboards and magazine are losing and even television is losing; it's tremendously wasteful to do broadcast."
At the presidential primary level, Liberman says campaigns only need to reach "five, ten, or twenty percent of voters in a state" in order to get their messages across.
However, for candidates looking to court young voters, digital outreach is paramount. Pew Research Center recently determined that Facebook is the go-to source for political news for a majority of Millennials and although young voters are less likely to keep up with current issues through Twitter, they are still following and talking about certain presidential candidates.
According to Zito's findings, the two age groups leading in their mentions of Trump on Twitter are Millennials — and potentially first-time voters–ages 18 to 24 and adults ages 25 to 34. Lieberman says there's a slight chance that most individuals in these age groups were first introduced to Trump and other candidates through social media.
Every major 2016 presidential candidate currently has an active Facebook page and Twitter account, and some have even joined Instagram and Snapchat, according to a recent report by Business Insider.
Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul for example, has developed a reputation as a social media maven. In January, the Kentucky senator became the first U.S. lawmaker to participate in an interview using Snapchat and, more recently, his campaign has used the app to advertise Paul's promise to destroy the U.S. tax code.
"If you turn back the clock 10 or 15 years, progressive media forms consisted of talk radio, the Internet and maybe a handful of podcasts," Sam Edwards, a digital marketing strategist, recently wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine. "Presidential candidates that were able to leverage these marketing mediums were considered innovative pioneers. Fast forward to 2015 and those are the standard."
Nonetheless, the social media revolution — including the data collection and advertising techniques that have developed in reaction to it — has introduced some challenges and alienated some voters.
With so much emphasis placed on reaching online users, Lieberman says voters who have grown accustomed to learning about candidates through cable television or mail could fall through the cracks — and in Lieberman's words, Facebook likes "don't count as votes."
"Any medium you're using for electioneering will have reach limits and in every way the digital outreach of the campaign mirrors the personality of the candidate," he says. "That's typically why a robust campaign uses different methods."