The Web affected the 2008 presidential elections in a big way. But if the amount of money spent online is any indication, the first honest-to-goodness Internet election has yet to come. Even though the Internet probably won't pose a threat to TV ad spending anytime soon, the last two years have moved the medium light years ahead when it comes to its significance to political campaigns.
ClickZ's Campaign '08 has tracked and analyzed online advertising efforts by the presidential campaigns since January 2007. What we've witnessed is that online advertising has been anything but an afterthought for the two presidential frontrunners. Both Senator John McCain's and Senator Barack Obama's campaigns have used online display and search advertising from early on in the primary season. They incorporated Internet teams into their operations for much more than updating Facebook group pages, sending e-mails to supporters, and counteracting negative attacks on blogs and video sites. They ran sophisticated Web ad campaigns, targeting audiences with specific interests and in specific locales, experimenting with rich media, and measuring ROI.
Focus on Fundraising
The presidential hopefuls relied on Web ads almost entirely for building supporter lists and garnering donations. Obama's ubiquitous "Join Us" call-to-action drove supporters to his site to sign up to volunteer, throw debate-watching parties, attend local campaign events, and, yes, donate. His campaign raked in millions of small payments from online donors, and we can assume much of that cash came in as a result of search and display ads and e-mails sent to those joiners.
As voting time drew near during the primaries, the Obama camp targeted ads to specific states, suggesting people click through to learn more about early voting, or find their local polling places. The same went for geo-targeted ads from both the Democratic National Committee and Obama's campaign seen in recent months; those promoted voter registration and early voting. Obama's ads pushing early voting even appeared in online games leading up to the election.
McCain's ad goals were much the same. However, many of his ads centered on issues such as pork-barrel spending, high gas prices, Supreme Court judge nominations, and foreign policy. They asked users to "Sign the Petition," "Take the Survey," or "Learn More." The McCain camp used those slightly different means to the same end: for collecting e-mail addresses to build a community of volunteers, supporters, and donors.
Many of McCain's display ads were used to target rivals including Hillary Clinton and Obama, and often those ads did not feature the Arizona Senator's image. "America Needs a Leader We can Trust to Make The Tough Decision. Obama Is Not Ready," read one such ad. Meanwhile, nearly all of Obama's ads displayed the charismatic candidate, perhaps recognizing his cult of personality. "Help Elect Barack Obama President of the United States," declared one of the most oft-seen ads, displaying a smiling Obama.
The Google Effect
Wads of cash were collected online. Most was spent elsewhere. It's unclear just how much money McCain's campaign spent on Web advertising -- his Federal Election Commission reports simply don't provide enough detail. Obama's do. From January 2008 into August, Obama for America spent around $5.5 million on online ads, $3.3 million of which went to Google, according to ClickZ's own analysis. Indeed, Google appears to be the clear winner in the 2008 online political ad race, collecting the largest portion of ad dollars from the presidential campaigns. Yahoo and local sites came at a distant second and third. Though we don't know (yet) how it all broke out, the Obama camp bought both AdWords ads on Google as well as display ads seen throughout the vast AdSense network.
Senator Hillary Clinton's Democratic primary campaign also spent the bulk of its online ad budget -- about 57 percent of around $508,000 -- on Google.
McCain's campaign was big on search, too. Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at political consulting agency Connell Donatelli Inc., and the man behind the McCain camp's search advertising, said it himself: "Finally, when the undecided people turn to the internet to research their vote, they will find the greatest and most thorough search marketing campaign in the history of politics," he claimed last week on his PardonMyFrench blog.
Though Obama's campaign appears to have placed the most Web ads and spent the most on online advertising this election, McCain and fellow Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney were early ad leaders. According to Nielsen Online AdRelevance data, each ran around 35 percent of all presidential candidate display ads, while Obama's camp placed around 27 percent. A relatively small number of display ads also showed up from Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson, in addition to Republicans Mike Huckabee, Tom Tancredo, and Fred Thompson. Rudy Giuliani ran some search ads, too.
During the primaries, Mitt Romney's campaign for the Republican nomination became a leader in online ad innovation. His was the first presidential campaign to use the video overlay format. The Web savvy camp targeted display ads to early primary and caucus states including South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida, and used re-targeting to serve ads to people who had clicked them before, but hadn't registered or donated the first time around.
According to Romney for President e-strategy director Mindy Finn, the campaign measured ad success by the number of volunteer signups gathered or value of contributions collected as a result of click-through. The campaign even devised formulas based on the number of potential voters reached per ad dollar spent.
The ability to directly tie ad expenditures to registrations and donations attracted the presidential campaigns to online advertising, especially pay-for-performance advertising. More than once during the campaign, Frenchman noted McCain collected an average of $3 or $4 in donations for every $1 spent online.
The TV/Web Spending Disparity
Internet teams may believe in the medium, but spending on online advertising in the '08 election season has been minimal. Media research firm Borrell Associates lowered its 2008 online political ad spending projections from around $20 million at the start of the year to about $17.7 million more recently. Of the $2.27 billion Borrell expects to be spent on political ads this election, less than 1 percent will go toward the Web.
Compare television ad expenditures to online ad spending by the presidential campaigns and the chasm is wide. While the Obama camp spent around $5.5 million on Web ads between January and August of this year, its media buyers plunked down over $3 million for TV ads in just one day in October.
There are multiple reasons for the TV/Web ad disparity. One of the biggest is that online advertising is not viewed as a persuasive medium. In the commercial advertising world, online ads are widely considered good for direct response efforts, but are used less for branding purposes. The same is true in the political sphere, where television is viewed as the ultimate persuasion medium and the Web more akin to direct mail -- mainly a fundraising vehicle.
Yet, as the 2008 presidential campaigns' reliance on YouTube and other Web video to persuade voters indicates, that may change -- particularly considering that this election's online campaigns will be scrutinized more than any before. "There's going to be a lot of analysis of the campaign online this time around," Borrell's VP of Research Kip Cassino told ClickZ News recently. "This is absolutely a groundbreaking election for digital marketing and the candidates, and it's not just the money involved. It's the techniques that were developed and the knowledge that was gained."
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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.
March 19, 2014