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Republicans Want to Harness Power of Social Media

Heading into an election year, Republicans have a message they want to share, and they’ve hired the inventor of the “ShareThis” button to help them do it.

Tim Schigel, the man behind the sideways V-shaped icon found on more than 1 million websites around the world, will lead the Republican National Committee’s digital strategy during the 2012 elections.

Schigel’s job will be to help Republicans understand “how they can use digital technology and digital marketing to transform the way they do business with the voters,” he said in an interview with Roll Call.

The gig is Schigel’s first foray into politics. And although the Cincinnati-based entrepreneur and investor describes himself as a Republican, he has cut only one political check in his life — a $500 donation to John Cranley, an Ohio Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Republican incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot in 2006.

“I don’t have a political background, I’ve never been involved in politics,” he said. “When I was first asked I didn’t know how to deal with it. … It just came out of the blue, or rather, the red.”

Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the committee, said that was exactly what the RNC was looking for — an outsider with entrepreneurial expertise.

Nathan Imperiale, the founder of NJI Media — a Web strategy firm that services House Republicans and built former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign website — endorsed this idea.

“I think it’s a smart move anytime you can bring in resources that have an outside perspective and not someone who has been through the wash in a political field,” he said.

Schigel, a former director with Blue Chip Venture Co., developed ShareThis to allow users to easily share a webpage’s content through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Last week, the company was named one of America’s 100 Most Promising Companies by Forbes.

The hire is part of a broader effort within the GOP to beef up its online presence and reach a younger, tech-savvy community. ShareThis helps advertisers target customers and allows publishers understand what is valuable to their readers by analyzing data on who is sharing what. The committee hopes to repurpose that key technology to promote Republican candidates in 2012.

The idea is based on the notion that people are more likely to buy a product — or in this case, donate to a Republican or read campaign literature — when it is recommended by a friend.

It’s no secret that the power and agility of President Barack Obama’s massive online network caught many Republicans off-guard in the 2008 election. GOP strategists are quick to admit that the past three years have been about shaking off a stubborn reliance on more traditional campaign tactics.

“It has been a long time since they have had folks on their digital team that have been real powerhouses in the online world,” said Imperiale, who as a House staffer launched the new media department at the House Republican Conference. “They recognized that they were far behind, and they are now running to catch up.”

In recent years, House Republicans have emerged as the party’s most adventurous in the social media department, introducing programs such as “YouCut,” which allows supporters to identify which government programs to eliminate through a floor vote every week the House is in session.

Earlier this year, a study conducted by the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering found that Republican candidates and their tea party supporters used Twitter more effectively than their Democratic rivals in 2010. A Congressional Management Foundation survey of 260 Congressional staffers interviewed from October to December concluded that Democrats on Capitol Hill are starting to feel that they have fallen behind Republicans not only on Twitter, but in all forms of social media engagement.

At the same time, tea partyers have also embraced online forums set up by FreedomWorks, and others, following in the footsteps of some of the early conservative bloggers.

“There seems to very good reception on the Republican side to want to do the same, if not more [than Democrats]” said Schigel, who started his new position late last month. “When you’re close to this stuff, you know that it changes very fast. Some of the things that you used two years ago are obsolete today.”

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