A host of phenomena are contributing to make the Internet central to this election season.
The Internet has been an important weapon in the political battle now being fought between presidential candidates and their advocates. Witness its influence in the ongoing documents debacle that's finally forced an apology from CBS News. Take a look at the MoveOn.org phenomenon, in which a group founded online at the time of the Clinton impeachment has played a significant role in this presidential election. Note the astounding popularity of the JibJab.com "This Land" spoof, which skewers both candidates.
For all of that, fairly little money has been spent on online advertising by the campaigns themselves. While no precise information is available on the presidential candidates' online budgets, we know it's not a lot. Of the more than $1 billion dollars that will be spent on political advertising this campaign season, strategists agree only a tiny fraction has gone online. Online spending is up over the 2002 campaign season, and way up over 2000, but it's still not commanding big marketing dollars -- or even an amount comparable to the share of budget it's getting from the private sector.
Still, the online environment this year is nothing if not politically charged. A host of phenomena -- from the candidates themselves to the hyperactive 527 organizations to the increasingly influential political bloggers -- are contributing to make the Internet central to this election season.
Less than fifty days before the general election, it's safe to say the dominant ambition of online campaigning -- at least by the candidates -- has been to raise cash. This is the legacy of Howard Dean, whose campaign set a new paradigm for the Web by raising millions in small donations online.
"Online ads are an integral part of our grassroots fundraising strategy," said Morra Aarons, Internet marketing director for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). "The ads also bring in a number of first-time donors and then direct them to our Web site... where they can become involved in online activism and organizing for the Democratic Party."
The Bush campaign's tactics are similar. So says John Durham, principal of Pericles Consulting, who signed Bush/Cheney as its first client when it formed last year. Durham absolutely disagrees that fundraising is the best use of the Web, but he admits it's the most proven.
"People use the Web for all things; advertisers should use it for all things," Durham said. "I'm not for isolating it [for any single purpose]."
As far as candidates are concerned, display ads function as reminders for people who already intend to donate. The DNC's fundraising-driven online media plan is about what you'd expect, with big buys on sites like cnn.com, nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com.
"We've targeted major national news sites... where we know politically aware potential donors frequent," said Aarons. "We've trialed various types of messages, including both positive advertisements on Kerry's vision and humorous anti-Bush cartoons on his failed leadership. We'll also target our ad placements to political or national news areas, naturally."
However they're targeted, the call to action is the same: Donate. Whether banner runs or email blasts, it's all about the money.
"When you take a look at the email campaigns going out from DNC, more than two thirds are fundraising," said Juan Proano, president of Plus Three, a database management company that started out building data systems for the Democrats and "backed into" political messaging.
A recent incident, widely misinterpreted, illustrates the supremacy of fundraising in the online ad mix. In August, the number of display ads purchased by the Kerry/Edwards campaign plummeted from 72.5 million in July to about 77,000, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. A number of articles declared Kerry's campaign had gone dark -- had somehow given up on the Web -- but what really happened is the convention deadline had passed for Kerry to raise funds through individual donations. Meanwhile, Bush had until the end of August and his party's own convention to keep making bank this way -- so his online ad impressions actually increased during the same period.
Rather than demonstrate a reduced focus on the Internet for Kerry, the drop in traffic revealed what many already knew: that the Internet has come to be viewed as an ideal vehicle for political fundraising... but not persuasion.
A Persuasion Gap
There are a few exceptions. Early in the campaign, Pericles Consulting created a persuasion campaign for Bush geared toward working women that used display advertising.
"We bought big content sites and some local media, newspaper and magazine sites," said Durham.
Plus Three's Proano says his firm did a big branding campaign for Kerry earlier this year. Banners on regional news sites called on individuals to click and learn about the negative effects of Bush's policies in their states.
But these campaigns are few and far between.
"There's still a chasm we need to cross to prove that persuasion advertising actually works," said Proano. "You haven't seen it in banner advertising. [The campaigns] haven't done brand awareness campaigns of the sort that's more traditional in the private sector."
Certainly there's a lot of potential to boost persuasion advertising online. Online video ads, for example, appear to hold vast potential for political candidates who might want to repurpose their TV spots cheaply on the Web. But so far they've been used mostly on the campaigns' sites and in emails to their house lists. Why?
"Unlike TV, it's still a hard medium emotionally," said Durham. "Politics is about emotion. Television is still the most powerful medium, and will continue to be. But as costs go up, how do we reach that under-35 demo?" He says the Web is gradually being recognized as an ideal medium for this.
Non-candidates have probably had the biggest effect on the online political landscape this year. But the influence of 527 organizations, online activists and blogs is difficult to quantify.
These groups and individuals are presiding over a rash of viral video spots and partisan Web sites that take the business blogging and viral marketing phenomena and add a political spin.
Karen Jagoda, president and founder of E-Voter Institute, believes online political discourse is trending toward a merger of hard political content and soft entertainment.
Examples abound: Howard Dean, the Internet's biggest beneficiary last year, was later stung by it when his unflattering "scream" moment was posted online and viewed millions of times by supporters and opponents alike.
JibJab.com's "This Land" spoof, which skewers both candidates and drew 10.4 million unique visitors in July, is another good example. More people viewed the spot than visited both candidates' sites combined, according to comScore Media Metrix.
"I think it was a watershed moment," Jagoda said of the "This Land" craze. "It skewered both Bush and Kerry, so you could send it to any of your friends. It makes you wonder: is it advertising or is it entertainment?"
She argues that TV-obsessed ad strategists don't get the fundamental shift JibJab portends for political programming. This change, she says, means a couple hundred thousand dollars spent wisely online could translate into a windfall for candidates equal to a TV ad buy in the millions. That is, if you do it right.
"Some might think of it as propaganda, but advertising is propaganda anyway," she said. The question is, who makes the best, funniest, most convincing propaganda... the kind people forward to their friends?
Webloggers, too, are influencing increasingly larger audiences. In many cases, these small-scale publishers don't want to be objective. In fact, many are blatantly trying to swing the vote; and in the new atmosphere of total subjectivity, everybody's ok with that.
An example: Poll tracking site electoral-vote.com, whose author touts his objectivity while proclaiming himself pro-Kerry, recently kicked off an ad campaign promoting his site.
"The idea is to get younger voters in swing states to pay attention to the election by having them visit this site and hopefully get enthusiastic enough to vote," wrote the site's anonymous author. The political intent is clear: Increase Kerry's chances by boosting turnout among left-leaning young adults. Political advocacy or self-promotion? Perhaps a little of both.
527 organizations have had a huge part to play in the online media melee, if the traffic going to their Web sites is any indication. During the third week of August, the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" Web site garnered 483,000 unique visitors, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, and during the same period a site called ScaryJohnKerry.com brought in 410,000. Other 527 sites enjoying massive influxes include Townhall.com, Freerepublic.com and Moveon.org, according to analytics company Hitwise.
These properties are in some cases beating the traffic numbers reported by the candidates themselves. While John Kerry's site for that same week (ending August 22) soared to 648,000, the Bush/Cheney site maxed out at 428,000.
How did people hear about these sites? In many cases through TV and radio spots, as was the case with the SwiftVets.com onslaught. And Hitwise reports surfers in many battleground states comprise the lion's share of the traffic to the candidates' Web pages, perhaps driven online by broadcast spots.
This all suggests online political advocacy is treated best as a cross-media effort, and while online ad spending by the major campaigns and parties seems paltry, the attention being paid to the Web is not.
"The content of these political sites demonstrates how the presidential candidates continue to use the Internet as a strategic tool to gain voters and create controversy," said Corey Jeffery, senior analyst for Nielsen//NetRatings. "The fight online likely will grow fiercer as election time draws near."
Jagoda believes there's more Web media action to come, and expects the 527 campaigns to be the big spenders.
"The rise of the 527's was a surprise to some, not to me," she said. "But how this money gets spent in the last 30 days is anybody's guess."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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