Opponents of California's controversial Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, still don't know what hit them. The ProtectMarriage.com coalition used the Web to fuel fundraising, volunteerism, and voter persuasion, and two tactics in particular may have given them an edge: online ads targeted using voter file data, and a last-minute get-out-the-vote ad blitz.
The "Yes on 8" campaign got attention, not only for taking a forward-thinking and integrated approach to using the Internet, but for demonstrating that having a younger, more liberal base doesn't necessitate Web prowess. Schubert-Flint Public Affairs, the firm that ran the overall campaign, along with its Internet ad and e-mail strategy partner Connell Donatelli, recently won multiple awards from the Association of Political and Public Affairs Professionals for its digital "Yes on Prop 8" campaign. Californians voted on the initiative in November when they cast their presidential ballots.
"The other side I think had an assumption...that they would naturally win," said Jeff Flint, co-campaign manager for ProtectMarriage.com and a partner at Schubert-Flint Public Affairs. Because the Prop 8 opposition had a younger and assumedly more tech-savvy following, they were expected to win the Web battle. In the end, he imagines the No on 8 side wondering, "How did we get beat [online] by the stodgy, old, pro-marriage crowd?"
ProtectMarriage.com is a collective of conservative organizations such as The Family Research Council, American Family Association, the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and various evangelical church organizations.
"We knew the campaign was going to be a big effort and we knew one of our primary goals was to use technology, the Internet, digital media...extensively in the campaign," Flint told ClickZ News.
Voter File Data Fuels Web Ad Targeting
A key part of the plan involved the use of voter file data to target online ads. Voter file matching involves pairing voter registration data with registration data from sites such as Yahoo, AOL, and MSN to target advertising. Such large sites have matched their own user registration information with data provided by advertisers for years, enabling companies -- and sometimes political campaigns -- to pinpoint ads only to specific users. In the case of Yes on 8, online display ads were shown only to registered Republicans and Independents living in California, in addition to California Democrats aged 55 and over.
The online targeting effort was coordinated by Connell Donatelli, a prominent Republican political consulting firm that also ran John McCain's 2008 campaign's Web ad strategy.
The ads began appearing on Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft about a month before the election. Non-voter-file-matched display ads were also targeted contextually and behaviorally through various ad networks such as Advertising.com, J Media Group's Jewish ad network, Christian and conservative political network Salem Web Network, FoxNews, and Google's AdSense content network. A search ad campaign targeted to keyword searches related to themes like religion, conservatism, marriage, and Prop 8 had already started on Google, Yahoo, and MSN, too. The goal for most of those earlier ads was to attract volunteers, spur donations, and build the supporter e-mail list.
"We made driving of traffic to the Web site very prominent in all our advertising from the very beginning," said Flint. In addition to Web, TV, and radio spots pushing people to the site, the campaign made sure radio talk show guests promoting the Yes on 8 initiative mentioned the ProtectMarriage site frequently.
Traditional Couples and a Hispanic Heartthrob
The campaign used a variety of approaches to online ad messaging in the month leading up to the November election. Some ads featured photos of "traditional" families and stated, "Protect Traditional Marriage." Others showed images of young men, women, or couples and read, "So, how does Prop 8 affect me? You might be surprised." Some ads aimed at conservatives declared, "Don't let activist judges redefine marriage." The presidential race also came into play in display ads alluding to August 2008 interviews between Saddleback Church's Rev. Rick Warren, and McCain, and then-candidate Barack Obama, during which both candidates provided nuanced support of traditional marriage.
"At least they agree on something. Marriage is between a woman and a man," said the ads, which led users to a video featuring relevant footage from the interviews. All the ads drove users to specific landing pages with specific content, rather than simply bringing them to the ProtectMarriage homepage.
As part of its effort to reach Catholics, the campaign targeted Spanish speakers in their native tongue, recognizing many Hispanics are also staunch Catholics. "Vote Si en la Propuesta 8: La Verdad," said some ads (translation: "Vote Yes on Proposition 8: The Truth"). The campaign also appealed to the large Californian Hispanic population with a video featuring Mexican actor and heartthrob Eduardo Verastegui.
The ProtectMarriage campaign also kept up a Facebook presence, and prompted supporters to upload "positive" (read: not homophobic) videos to YouTube.
Yes on 8 Brings out the Big Guns
As the Yes camp thrived online, the No on 8 team seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Reportedly, its campaign manager was pushed aside just three weeks before the election, and others working with the campaign were also replaced. Despite attempts to do so, ClickZ was unable to speak about the No on 8 campaign's Web strategy with representatives of coalition member Equality California or campaign-affiliated consulting firms Smith Perry Communications Group and Dewey Square Group.
Meanwhile, ProtectMarriage was prepping an online attack that would catch the No campaign and its supporters completely off guard in the final days before the election.
"If the voter file-matched ads were akin to a stealth bomber," suggested Connell Donatelli Senior Account Manager Anthony Bellotti, this ad onslaught was "akin to a carpet bombing." They call it the Google Surge, and it appeared to cause distraction among Prop 8 opponents online in the last two days before the election. The tactic involves serving ads on behalf of one advertiser on most or all of the Google content network pages generated within a short period to a specific geographic area. In the last 48 hours, Yes on 8 covered sites in Google's AdSense content network with display ads targeted geographically to Californians. Like other campaigns using the tactic, Yes on 8 aimed to push voters to the polls and persuade them to vote their way.
"We knew we were going to play that card," said Bellotti. "The No campaign didn't know what was going to hit them.... Our goal was to do a saturation buy.... We wanted to completely overwhelm them." Of the $41 million in donations raised by the ProtectMarriage campaign, $7 million was raised online, according to Flint. The campaign originally thought they'd be lucky to raise $2 million. And in the final days, the money was rolling in.
"It was a combination of really wanting to win the [Web] space, and a huge surge in campaign funds that were coming in online," said Flint. "We were having problems on how to spend it," he continued, noting it was too late for the campaign to buy any more broadcast media. "As the fundraising exceeded our expectations, most of the additional media we bought was online."
So the campaign went to Google. "We had a conversation with the Google people and arrived at a number and got the space." Not only was the Prop 8 opposition disturbed by seeing ubiquitous Yes on 8 ads targeted to Californians -- even on left-leaning political and gay Web sites. They were steamed that Google had enabled the ads to run at all. "Google slammed for ads promoting opposition to gay marriage in California," read a headline on DrudgeReport. The company had made a rare political statement in officially opposing the ballot initiative.
The campaign spent as much as $500,000 on the Google Surge. All together, close to $1 million was spent on online advertising, according to Flint.
The surge tactic, deemed "the Network Blast" by Google, was recently employed by Democrat Scott Murphy, who ran in this week's special election for New York's 20th district congressional seat.
Last-minute e-mail messages also went out to Democrat, Republican, and Independent voters, also targeted through Connell Donatelli's voter file matching. Democrats and Republicans saw a message from a prominent African-American pastor, while Republicans read a message from the chairman of ProtectMarriage.
Although it passed, Prop 8 is now subject to an upcoming California Supreme Court ruling as to whether or not it can stand.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.