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Headed Into Iowa Caucus, Santorum Jockeys for Position Online

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, January 3 2012

Rick Santorum Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Just hours away from the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign is looking online to make the most of his sudden rise to prominence.

As recently as mid-December, things weren't looking so great for Santorum. At the time, his "No Surrender" money bomb fizzled — but his campaign pushed on. He gained traction in the Iowa polls through the holiday season after receiving a string of endorsements. Following those endorsements, Santorum had better luck igniting his online fundraising -- a subsequent "Iowa Surprise" Money Bomb exceeded its $250,000 goal.

Now the most recent polls show a sudden spike in interest in Santorum in Iowa. The candidate has famously criss-crossed the state and made Herculean efforts to connect with would-be caucus goers in the offline world, but has his team made the same investment in the online world? The question matters because the infrastructure needs to be there for his campaign to scale.

As the money bomb efforts suggest, the candidate hasn't been shy in experimenting with emerging online tools to capitalize on sudden surges of interest. For that particular project, the Santorum digital campaign used an out-of-the-box social fundraising tool called Fundly to set up its money bomb efforts.

Santorum's campaign has also done its research in terms of online advertising. Like rivals Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, the campaign is advertising against the keywords "Iowa Caucuses" on Google.

Santorum's rivals, however, have also bought attack ads against him on Google: Type in "Rick Santorum" if you're in Iowa, and right under the Santorum campaign's top ad in the search results, you'll see Texas Governor Rick Perry's sponsored link to the campaign's microsite "Santorum Defends Earmarks."

The campaign is also advertising on Facebook. Look for Santorum or any of his rivals on Facebook and you'll find a sponsored link with the headline "Rick Santorum: Caucus 101," with a link back to the campaign web site, which provides instructions on how to caucus Tuesday night (The Perry campaign is also advertising the "Santorum Defends Earmarks," microsite alongside the Santorum ads that have been placed against Mitt Romney's Facebook page.)

The Facebook ads may have a limited impact in Iowa on Tuesday, but any social gains from this caucus may expand his reach in time for New Hampshire. The social media analytics firm Socialbakers found in a recent analysis that Santorum's campaign ranked among the lowest in its engagement rate with fans on Facebook, and actually decreased by seven percent in the past week. This engagement rate, as measured by Socialbakers, is measured by the number of “likes” and comments per post divided by a candidate’s number of fans.

Intriguingly, Socialbakers also reports that Santorum's campaign grew its Facebook "fan" base the fastest in December. It grew by 23 percent to just over 40,895 fans at the time that Socialbakers was conducting its research. As of Tuesday, the campaign has 42,300 fans. (Mitt Romney still beats the pants off of the Santorum campaign in this department with 1.26 million fans. Meanwhile, the Republicans' Facebook fan bases still pale in comparison to President Obama's fan base of more than 24 million.)

Many would-be caucus goers are probably simply Googling Santorum for more information about the candidate -- if they haven't already seen him speak at an event.

The candidate's landing page features three useful "action buttons." One leads voters to the Iowa GOP's web site, which provides caucusing information, another a link to a page with instructions on how to caucus (a standard feature that every campaign has) and the third links to a page for the many Iowans who are still undecided. It's simply headlined "Undecided? Why Rick. Rick on the Issues."

For Santorum, all these elements are crucial, both now and later on in the race. Polls indicate that Iowa voters are still ambivalent about who they will choose Tuesday evening, and search trends indicate that they're still trying to find out more about him.

Google Insights for Search, for example, shows searches for Santorum spiked in December in Iowa.

(Unfortunately for Santorum, sex columnist Dan Savage's long-time prank microsite Spreading Santorum is still the third-highest ranking result for the candidate in Google.)

Also late Tuesday, polls show Romney and Paul running neck to neck in Iowa. Online, as in the offline world, Santorum is still soldiering away.

Late in the afternoon, the candidate sent out the following organizational message to his 57,559 followers on Twitter:

"To my #iacaucus supporters: If you plan to speak for me tonight, go here for resources:"

That section of the Santorum's site contains all the materials and talking points that would-be caucus captains need to speak on behalf of their candidate.