With his successful bid for president in 2008, Barack Obama broke not just racial barriers but also technological barriers, mobilizing millions of young voters via Facebook and email blasts.
Now, vying for re-election in 2012, he finds himself pitted against GOP challengers in a vastly altered media landscape. The edge this time around won't go to whoever has a Twitter account - everyone will - but who makes the best use of it, observers said.
"It's a far cry from 2008, when [GOP candidate John] McCain said he didn't use email. He got away with it back then," said Jason Keath, a social media consultant and founder of Social Fresh.
1. SOCIAL MEDIA TO ORGANIZE
Most, if not all, hopefuls will lean on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Those sites' icons appear on Obama's campaign website, as well as those for Republican candidates Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and presumed GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, under headings asking supporters to "connect" or "get connected."
The platforms should be used as "amplification tools" to market the candidates, Keath said. "More than anything, the real purpose of these tools is organization. We saw the organizational power of social media in Egypt," he added. "It makes things happen on a larger scale and faster than it would otherwise."
2. A FASTER-MOVING, LONGER-LASTING ELECTION
Facebook and Twitter have allowed candidates to bypass the traditional media and break news, speaking directly to voters, observers said.
For example, many hopefuls have used Facebook and Twitter to announce their candidacies.
"Social media is no longer just social media; it's a legitimate form of media," said Keli Goff, a political expert and blogger with TheLoop21.com.
Social media also gives fringe candidates a fighting chance, said communications expert TJ Walker.
"We could potentially have a dozen Republican candidates staying in for the whole campaign cycle," Walker said.
Citing Republican candidate Ron Paul, Walker added: "Someone with a fervent, fervent following in social media but who isn't considered a credible presidential candidate with the establishment, can become a credible candidate."
It remains to be seen how fast-moving social-media platforms spread rumors or work to dispel them, observers said.
Hopefuls will have to beware of fake Twitter accounts set up by critics posing as the candidates, according to Keath.
And those with their eye on the White House may seek to scrub down their Internet records to change what potential voters learn about them. Gingrich recently deleted all his tweets prior to July 2010.
"Social media ... is helping political mudslinging and the rumor mill to reach new heights," said a spokeswoman for Reputation.com, an Internet-scrubbing service that said it has at least one presidential candidate as a client. "If politicians don't have a handle on their online reputation, their campaign will be severely hurt."
4. WHAT'S NEXT
Beyond social media, candidates would be wise to capitalize on cell phone use, especially text messaging, Keath said. And with 50 percent of cell phone users projected to have smartphones by the end of the year, apps are a surefire way to gain their attention.
"Imagine a candidate having an app with maps showing his supporters which doors to knock on" to campaign for votes, Keath said. "Apps are a huge touchpoint [for] reaching voters on the ground."