Eliot Cutler’s campaign trumpeted its popularity on Facebook last week, saying its more than 20,000 “likes” outpace his competitors, Paul LePage and Mike Michaud.

What the independent candidate for governor’s campaign didn’t say was this: It has paid Facebook $16,000 to promote the campaign page, and that overall likes to a page are not a reliable measure of audience engagement.

Social media specialists say the Cutler campaign news release touting its Facebook love underscores two things: Political campaigns in the 21st century are increasingly relying on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and referrals to their own campaign websites, and campaigns need to be cautious about how they tout their social media reach because the landscape is nuanced.

Ryan Davis, vice president of community for Vocativ, a New York-based website that focuses on data-driven news, analyzed the Facebook pages of all three candidates and concluded that while all candidates are using the platform well, LePage and Michaud are doing better when it comes to engagement.

Sean Carlson, senior digital director for Fitzgibbon Media, a media relations and digital consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., analyzed the three Facebook pages as well and came to the same conclusion.

By Friday, Cutler had 20,063 likes; LePage, the incumbent Republican governor, had 19,048; and Michaud, the Democratic 2nd District congressman, had 11,693.

“Running against two incumbents, who both have political parties behind them, we think this is a significant accomplishment and an indicator of the strong support Eliot has all over Maine,” his communications director, Crystal Canney, said in a statement.

However, the number of people “talking” about Cutler on Facebook at that particular moment was 702. For Michaud, it was 2,251 and for LePage, 4,034. Davis and Carlson both said those numbers translate to the engagement rate, which is more telling than the number of overall likes a Facebook page has, although it’s important to note that not everyone talking about you is saying something positive.

“The size of your following means nothing,” Carlson said. “If you can translate them into votes, that’s what is going to matter.”

The individual posts entered on the LePage and Michaud Facebook pages also have attracted many more likes, as well as Facebook users who are sharing posts with their followers, than those on Cutler’s page.

On Friday, one of the most recent posts on the Cutler campaign Facebook page was a link to an interview he did with a TV station in Aroostook County. That post received 21 likes and was shared just once.

On Michaud’s campaign Facebook page, a post urging Mainers to call on LePage to support Medicaid expansion had 110 likes and 85 shares. On LePage’s Facebook page, a March 31 post about the governor’s welfare reform initiatives received 1,373 likes and was shared 527 times.

It’s also important to note that Cutler’s Facebook page has been active since 2009, a year before his first campaign for governor. LePage’s page, which is both a campaign page and his official governor page, has been active since 2010.

Michaud’s campaign page, by comparison, was created last June when he announced his exploratory committee to run for governor.

“The truth is, you can buy likes to your page,” Davis said, referring to the practice of running sponsored ads that encourage Facebook users to like a page. “But you can’t force people to talk about you. It’s hard to deny that less people are engaged on Cutler’s page. He has a bigger audience but less engagement.”

Carlson concurred. He said he can’t tell whether any of the Facebook pages bought likes but said it is certainly possible to invest heavily in purchasing Facebook ads and see some success.

“In that case you might get more followers, but they may not be engaged,” he said.

While it’s not clear if Cutler has purchased likes, his most recent campaign finance filings with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices – which includes expenditures through the end of 2013 – show a total of 117 payments to Facebook for advertisements. They ranged from $30 to more than $300, for a total of more than $16,000.

Michaud’s campaign, by comparison, had spent a little more than $4,500 on Facebook ads, and spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said a big chunk of that went to promote a biographical video about the candidate.

LePage’s campaign hasn’t spent any money on Facebook.

Brent Littlefield, senior campaign adviser to LePage, said he’s proud of the level of engagement on LePage’s Facebook page, particularly since no money has been spent to promote it.

“We think it’s indicative of the enthusiasm among voters,” he said.

Canney, however, said that while Cutler’s spending on Facebook may dwarf that of his opponents, LePage and Michaud have the Republican and Democratic party operations, respectively, to help out. She also stressed that Cutler’s campaign has made a number of smaller payments to Facebook for message-based advertising but not to promote the page overall.

Canney said she promoted the number of likes to Cutler’s Facebook page last week because that is the metric the public is most familiar with, but she acknowledged that it is not the only metric. However, she downplayed the impact of the number of likes or shares of specific posts and said the campaign is more focused on the number of people who are reading posts, watching videos or going to the campaign’s website. Facebook does not track those data.

Social media engagement has become an increasingly important part of political campaigns because it’s a cost-effective way to reach a wide audience, especially a younger audience that lives online.

But while Facebook is probably the most well-known social media site, there are others.

All three campaigns have Twitter feeds. As of Friday morning, @LePage2014 had the most followers with 1,711, followed by @Michaud2014 with 1,552, and @Eliot Cutler with 1,319.

Cutler has tweeted the most – 960 as of Friday – but his page has been active since September 2009.

Michaud’s page has logged 314 tweets since his profile was created last June.

The LePage campaign has tweeted only 168 times, but his gubernatorial office Twitter account, @Governor_LePage, has tweeted 877 times since July 2012. It also has 2,599 followers.

As with other social media metrics, the number of Twitter followers is not the only way to measure presence and success on that platform.

The website Retweet Rank calculates the reach of a particular Twitter feed by tracking the number of tweets that are shared by other Twitter users.

Cutler ranks the highest, at 375,596, on retweet rank, which means he is the 375,596th most influential person on Twitter. LePage’s rank is 479,011 and Michaud is 608,945.

Want some more numbers?

The website Klout measures a person’s social media influence using Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. The range of scores is between 1 and 100 and the average is about 40, according to the website. LePage’s score, as of Friday, was 48. Michaud had a score of 80. A search for Eliot Cutler on Klout produced no results.

What about traffic to the campaign’s own websites?

That’s harder to track, but a company called Alexa provides global rankings for websites. Michaud’s site, www.michaud2014.com, ranked highest at 3,506,504th, followed by www.cutlerformaine.com at 4,523,072 and www.lepage2014.com at 8,487,092.

Davis said campaigns should be careful about how they tout Web or social media metrics.

“I think you run the risk of people looking more closely into the numbers and that’s not always going to be good for you,” he said.

Littlefield, LePage’s adviser, said he’s been watching Cutler’s Facebook page for months and expected the campaign to promote its likes even though he said the numbers are meaningless.

Reinholt, Michaud’s spokeswoman, called the Cutler campaign’s Facebook boasting a “silly distraction.”

“Every public poll confirms that Mike is the only candidate who can beat Governor LePage, and his momentum continues to grow every day,” she said. “If we need to talk about numbers we should be talking about the 70,000 Mainers who don’t have health insurance because of Governor LePage’s failed leadership – not Facebook.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell