Online Political Ads Play Catch-Up to Social Media

Politics, advertising and social media

WASHINGTON — At the intersection of new media and politics, the idea that the Obama campaign changed the way politicians use the Web has been written into the canon. But when it comes to paid online advertising, a panel of experts at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Washington office said last year’s election was no great leap forward.

Both major presidential candidates, as well as politicians and advocacy groups from the national to local levels paid more attention to the Web this year than in previous elections, but that may have been more a reflection of the simple fact that people are spending more time online and advertisers, whether political or corporate, know they need to meet their audience on its turf. It’s a lot easier to justify an extensive social-media presence on free-to-use viral favorites like Facebook and YouTube than shelling out for big-dollar ad campaigns in a medium whose mechanics politicos are still struggling to understand.

“One of the things that is difficult is understanding all the different pricing structures of online advertising,” said Emily Williams, Obama’s campaign manager for online advertising. “It’s difficult to say you need to spend x dollars or x percent of your budget to achieve x goals,” added Williams, an account executive at the Washington political ad agency MSHC Partners.

In the case of Obama, whose virally organized online grassroots campaign to many rewrote the playbook for online campaigns, his team spent just $16 million on digital advertising, compared to $250 million on TV spots. Across the board, online advertising represented roughly 5 percent of total political ad spending in last year’s campaigns, the panelists said.

Just as in the business world, political advertising on the Web is most effective when it has a specific outcome in mind. “I don’t think you have to spend money online just for the sake of it,” Williams said.

Most broadly, online political ad campaigns are about branding, much the same way that commercial marketers try to sculpt the image and associations that come to mind with a product’s name.

Political campaigns also borrow from the commercial realm the idea of a call to action, where the success of an ad is measured by how many people who saw it were moved to take the next step like click on the banner, take a survey or buy a product. In the case of politics, those calls to action are largely a tool to raise funds. They are also widely used to build lists of likely voters, something Obama did with great effectiveness. In the case of an advocacy group championing a candidate or some referendum issue, the ad could be used to gather signatures for an online petition.

Those purposes can merge in the case of an advocacy group might be trying to promote or defeat a particular piece of legislation. The ad campaign would have the twin goals of raising awareness for that specific issue, but collecting information from people to build a list that could be used for an e-mail marketing campaign down the road.

The search side of online advertising holds a unique potential for political candidates that can’t be found in other media, said Jeffrey Dittus, CEO of CampaignGrid, an online ad network geared for candidates and activists.

“You get incredible analytics that you can then use to craft your message,” Dittus said. Analyzing the arc of a search campaign yields insights into what target voters are searching for, easily quantifiable information about what people are interested in that can keep a campaign ahead of the pollsters and the mainstream media, he said.

Search advertising also offers the possibility to fight back against political smears. Both campaigns ran up against baseless rumors impugning the candidates. In Obama’s case, one of the most prevalent was the Internet meme claiming he was a Muslim. In response, the campaign bid on variations of search keywords relating to the issue so it could place ads aiming to set the record straight about the candidate. Obama even launched a Web site,, trying to weigh in with an official debunking of the rumors that were flying around the Web.

McCain did the same thing when his surprise pick for vice president, Sarah Palin, became a favorite target of liberal blogs spreading untruths about her family. At considerable expense, the campaign launched what amounted to be a Sarah Palin branding campaign, the panelists said.

[cob:Special_Report]In the Internet age where rumors and half-truths spread like wildfire over e-mail, blogs and social networks, the most important thing for politicians to remember is that you can’t defuse a bomb that’s already gone off, the panelists said.

“The Web rule is that if there’s a critical message out there, don’t try to squelch it — because you can’t — but to have your information side by side, if at all possible,” said Colin Delany, founder of, a site focused on political tactics on the Internet.

At the same time, when a candidate is under attack for something that hasn’t taken hold on the Internet, it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie. Such was the case when John McCain was taking heat for his association with Charles Keating, a prominent figure in the 1980’s savings and loan scandal. Unlike the Obama-Muslim flap and the Palin fiasco, the Web wasn’t buzzing about that one, so why would he turn a non-issue into an issue with a search-ad campaign?

The world of online political advertising lags well behind its corporate counterpart in some of the sophisticated technologies like behavioral targeting. The privacy concerns that arise when commercial marketers compile profiles about consumers are magnified in the political arena, said Delany.

“In the politically world, I suspect you’re going to hit the point of diminishing marginal returns pretty quickly,” he said, warning of the consumer “blowback” that campaigns could encounter when they dive too deep into targeting. “Even though sites all around the Web have been putting cookies on our computers for 15 years, when it’s a political candidate that’s doing it, there’s a little whiff of Big Brother.”

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