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Gingrich pins hopes on hashtags

By Shawna Shepherd, CNN Political Producer
updated 1:40 PM EDT, Sun March 11, 2012
"For those of you who don't know about Twitter, you send out tweets to 'tweeples,'" Gingrich joked in Tupelo, Mississippi.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newt Gingrich is relying on Twitter and Facebook to reach out to more voters
  • Gingrich's campaign has raised more than $10 million online, spokesman says
  • In January they hired digital media consultant Vincent Harris for more expertise
  • Facebook is the best site to reach tens of millions of average voters, Harris says

Dothan, Alabama (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich may occasionally refer to a Twitter hash tag as a hash mark but he is relying on the Internet to reach out to voters, one tweet and Facebook friend at a time.

The Republican presidential candidate doesn't have as much money to spend on television advertising as his counterparts, but Gingrich is devoting considerable resources to maximize his online presence.

Gingrich, who often boasts that 95% of his donations are less than $250, announced at a campaign stop in Alabama that he just received his 175,000th donation. The former House speaker has been able to stay in the race thanks to his online fundraising efforts.

"This is part of how we've survived against Romney, frankly. He raises lots of money off Wall Street and we reach out through the Internet, so we can run a very inexpensive campaign," Gingrich said in Savannah, Georgia, on March 2.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said the campaign has raised a little more than $10 million in online fundraising, and approximately a quarter of that has been spent on digital strategy, which includes fundraising, advertising, the campaign website and social media management.

In late January they hired digital media consultant Vincent Harris to help the burgeoning campaign after Gingrich won the South Carolina primary.

"I stepped in to a campaign that was very well-versed with everything online, they just didn't have the people resources," said Harris, who worked for Rick Perry's campaign before the Texas governor dropped out of the race.

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According to Harris, he primarily helped redesign Gingrich's website and brought online advertising and Facebook expertise to the campaign. He said he and his firm Harris Media "were able to articulate more about the potential ROIs (returns on investment) for running online ads."

Four weeks ago Gingrich introduced his plan to reduce gasoline prices to $2.50 per gallon and the campaign has aggressively promoted it on social media sites. On Twitter, the hash tag #$250gas has been tweeted 35,105 times by more than 7,400 users, according to Harris.

Gingrich incites chuckles from the younger members of audiences when he tries to explain his campaign's social media efforts.

"On Twitter if you go to hashtag $250gas and just put that in, that's a whole new group that we're building around so we can Twitter and we can send out tweets," Gingrich said in Tupelo, Mississippi. "For those of you who don't know about Twitter, you send out tweets to 'tweeples' so everybody who's on Twitter is a tweeple."

He may be trying to inject a little humor when he flubs online jargon, but he often marvels at the connective power of social media networks.

Facebook has become the best way to reach average voters -- for free, as Gingrich likes to point out -- with as many as 141 million users who are 18 and over, which represents roughly 60% of the population.

When Gingrich asks people at rallies to mention his $2.50 gallon gas plan, he says, "There are enough people here (that) I bet you reach at least a quarter-million or half-million people just by putting it on your Facebook page."

That might be a slight exaggeration, depending on crowd size, but according to Harris the average Facebook user has 130 friends, and if one of those friends clicks the "like" button or makes a comment, that post could potentially reach another hundred or so users.

With campaigns scheduling rallies with sometimes less than 48 hours' notice, reaching voters through social media is the best option. They're able to post information about an event to different networks, known as micro-targeting, and they can run inexpensive geo-targeted ads, based on a user's location, to help push people out to events in their area.

And the campaign is applying lessons learned in this week's contest in Georgia to next week's in Alabama and Mississippi.

"Since we did so well with evangelicals in Georgia, we are going to be advertising to folks in Christian colleges and folks who have graduated from Christian colleges in Mississippi and Alabama," Harris said.

Twitter users make up a much smaller percentage of Americans, fewer than 10%, but when it comes to fundraising, a campaign can bring in the same amount of money raised through Facebook. Harris said that's because the Twitter audience includes "hyperactive" users like political junkies, and people involved in politics like local party activists that are "hyper-engaged."

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