Before Loss to Scott Brown, Coakley Was Last-Minute Convert to Web Ads

ClickZ News - Politics & AdvocacyMartha Coakley’s campaign for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat has been panned since the Massachusetts Democrat lost to underdog Republican Scott Brown in the January special election. For one, the campaign’s approach to online advertising appears to be a study in unpreparedness.

Indeed, while the Coakley camp waited until the Friday before the election to buy online ads, the opposition camp ran Web ads throughout the brief election season to help build its list and generate volunteer support for get out the vote efforts. A source who worked with the Coakley campaign tells ClickZ News the campaign did not authorize any online advertising until the Friday evening before the January 19 election, leaving just three days including a weekend to put the money to work.

The Coakley camp paid recently-launched online political ad firm Bully Pulpit Interactive $96,000 for online ads starting in mid-January, according to Federal Election Commission report data compiled by ClickZ. The Brown camp spent far more throughout the election on Web ads, totaling around $500,000 according to the campaign’s top digital strategist.

Not only did Coakley’s online ad payment come too late to set up an ad buy with most website or ad network sales teams before the weekend, the following Monday was the Martin Luther King holiday, a day off for many. The options for ad buys were so slim, ad buyers had to rely on self-serve options. (Think Google’s or Facebook’s DIY ad networks.)

By contrast, the Coakley campaign spent millions with Omnicom-owned political buying agency GMMB, most likely for television spots and possibly direct mail. ClickZ’s estimate, based on FEC filings, is that the campaign paid $4.7 million to GMMB for ad buys between November and January. That puts the campaign’s online ad spending at a meager 2 percent of its traditional media buys.

Coakley’s bid to fill Edward Kennedy’s long-held Senate seat gained national interest because a Brown win would end the Democratic supermajority in the chamber, and would threaten to unravel healthcare reform. Massachusetts had not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972; plus, Coakley had Democratic party heavyweights behind her effort, including key unions, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the President, and his campaign’s prized database of supporters now housed by the Democratic National Committee.

By the time the Coakley people authorized the Web ad campaign, Brown was being considered serious opposition. Coakley’s lead in the polls was dwindling, and the campaign – once considered a shoo-in in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts – was scrambling to build momentum in the final days.

Additionally, the most a last-minute ad run could do was drive people to the polls, as opposed to building lists of supporters or raising funds, two activities that were a focus of the Brown campaign. Display and search ads were used to energize the Democratic base, with most ad messages focusing on Ted Kennedy’s legacy and President Obama. A TV ad launched by the Coakley campaign the day before the election also featured the President. Ads were targeted to likely Democratic voters, and to certain parts of the state poised to go Coakley’s way, such as Boston. They linked to landing pages where voters could find their polling place or get more info on the candidates’ platforms.

The campaign’s desperation – particularly from a digital standpoint – became evident to Democratic party insiders as election day drew near. According to the Coakley campaign source, people with experience handling digital efforts for previous Democratic campaigns stepped in to help during the last few days before the election on a volunteer basis.

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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