The idea is to generate more organic advocacy, which is much more effective. Personal recommendations, in politics or elsewhere, are the "gold standard" in persuasion, Ruffini says. So instead of using social ads to persuade potential voters, as TV ads do, campaigns use them for a purpose much better suited to the Internet: mobilization.
What the Internet is Good For
Whatever shortcomings the Internet has in persuasion, it makes up for in people taking action for a specific candidate. That action can be a donation, a trip to the polls, or even just a Facebook post.
"Facebook ads are means to an end. They in-and-of themselves aren't gonna persuade, but that's not the goal — it's to sign people up who will hit share on a post," Ruffini says. "Anything in the Newsfeed or posted by a user is inherently more valuable than an advertisement."
Posts with ample "likes" and a candidate with lots of fans mean a larger pool from which to draw donations. TheObama team'45 million likes during the 2012 campaign helped convert small donations into huge sums. Of the approximate $1 billion Obama's team raised this election, about $690 million came in digitally, according to Time. In 2008, it raised about $500 million online.
Get-out-the-vote efforts are also effective forms of mobilization on the Internet. A large study on the effects of Facebook on Election Day turnout in the 2010 election found the site was a very effective get-out-the-vote tool.
The self-described "61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization" found that users who saw a randomly distributed "I Voted" banner with pictures of their friends who voted underneath it were four times more likely to vote themselves.
The Obama campaign's tech team leaned heavily on that peer pressure strategy. It sent direct messages to influential Twitter followers and sent Facebook messages to people telling them which of their friends hadn't voted, according to one profile. That was part of a greater strategy in 2012 that resulted in an unexpected increase in turnout of young voters, the predominant users of social networks.
That success, and the continuing improvement of technology in campaigns, will likely mean more and more money dedicated for digital use in future elections.
"The Obama campaign and Democratic super PACs spent 20 to 25 percent of their money online this year, and for Republicans, that was somewhere around 10 percent" Ruffini says. "But in four years, it's going to be for every 2 dollars you spend on TV, you're going to want to spend 1 dollar online."
To reach those levels, campaigns will have to find a way to do more than mobilize supporters, says Ruffini.
"The next big nut to crack is persuasion," he says. "It's going to have to get good, because fewer people are watching TV."