2012 promises to be a banner year for money, mudslinging and media frenzy. Unless you are Barack Obama or the last candidate standing at the end of the GOP nominating process, you aren’t likely to be the one dominating media coverage next year. Add in the money that will be flowing through independent expenditure groups and other organizations pushing their own thousand points of view and your chances of getting heard above the din are as good as former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer getting invited to participate in a Republican presidential debate.

Our first suggestion to anyone considering a run for office in 2012 is to be socially aware. We’re not talking about sporting colored wristbands for popular causes or remembering to look someone in the eye when you shake their hand. We’re talking about listening to what voters are actually saying on social networks.

We’ve seen plenty of campaigns use social media like a bullhorn—turning it on when they want the candidate to say something, but forgetting that it’s really a two-way conversation.  

The latest generation of campaign management software incorporates social intelligence into campaign dashboards that allow you to monitor volunteer activity, donor activity and social chatter in real time—and customize a real-time response via email or social media to individuals or groups based on what they’re actually saying and doing.

When we first started using these tools for clients several years ago, the price point limited the audience to campaigns with enormous budgets. But the price has fallen dramatically while the technology has improved to the point that the social CRM system we’re currently deploying for clients is accessible to any campaign that can afford to buy pizza for volunteers once a month.

When you do want to use social media as a virtual bullhorn, our recommendation is to understand your own voice. Just as some candidates are made for TV and we put them in front of the camera as often as possible, others can naturally channel that homespun loquacity into the stream of digital chatter. However, if your fingers freeze at the sight of a keyboard, don’t try to force it. If you’re creating a stream of pointless chatter you’ll actually be making it harder for voters to grasp your point.

Remember, even with a real bullhorn, success requires thinking about the message, adjusting the volume and making sure you are in front of the right audience before pressing down on the switch.

The strongest suggestion we’ll make for any size campaign in 2012 is to advertise online and to do so early and often. With so much broadcast and cable advertising focusing on races at the top of the ticket, smaller campaigns will have a tough time buying time even if they can afford it. Online advertising offers a viable alternative for smaller budget campaigns to touch voters consistently, but only if you start early, watch the numbers and make it an integral part of your strategy. The key is to test your messages and your targeting early so you can get to a point where you are hitting the right audiences with the right messages before you ramp up your spending.

Be creative in what you advertise—a small image or a clever phrase, along with a landing page on your website can be created and launched in an afternoon so you can take advantage of news and events in real time. If you’re listening to the social conversation, you’ll get an even faster jump on what you could be saying.

Speaking of real time, for those of you who missed the big earthquake that rattled the East Coast a few months ago, it turns out that the Twitter network actually transmitted the news faster than the earthquake itself propagated. Skipping over the obvious puns about whether your campaign is ready to shake things up or is looking for that groundswell of support, we’ll ask whether you are still laboring under the assumption that social media isn’t something that you need to worry about in your neck of the woods.

Like the shock that closed the Washington Monument, you may be surprised at where the power of social media can strike—or how it can trigger some really serious cracks in your campaign plan if you’re not prepared. 

Steve Pearson is the president of CivicNEXT, which offers social media solutions for campaigns and organizations. Ford O’Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC and editor of the Political Quarterback.