Online advertising remains an afterthought for many presidential primary campaigns, but the Mitt Romney camp, entrenched in a tight Republican Michigan primary race today, has counted paid ads as an important component of its interactive strategy. Still, Romney for President’s e-strategy director Mindy Finn believes Web ads can only go so far when it comes to building momentum for political campaigns.
“While advertising is a fire starter potentially, or a complementary method of getting a message out, it is never going to be as successful as a real grassroots ground-up type of movement,” Finn told ClickZ News while discussing the campaign’s online strategy earlier this month.
“We put a lot of emphasis on e-mail,” said Finn, noting she also ran e-mail efforts for the Bush/Cheney reelection campaign in 2004. “While it’s not the sexiest aspect of an online campaign,” it’s an effective way of driving action and “keeping the grassroots part of a campaign motivated,” she continued. Romney’s interactive campaign staff includes five people working in conjunction with its media agency, National Media.
Throughout 2007, the campaign used e-mail to promote events such as a gathering of supporters at Boston’s Fenway Park for a phone fundraising session in June. Also, said Finn, other “Web 2.0 democratic initiatives” such as the campaign’s “Create Your Own Ad” contest, which let supporters mashup photos, videos, and audio clips to design a Romney TV ad, enabled the type of two-way conversation she called “infinitely more valuable” than Web ads.
Still, Romney for President ran the most display ads of any campaign in 2007 — about 100 million impressions, according to Nielsen Online AdRelevance, including around 1.5 million last month. Like other primary candidates, “change” was the focal point of many ads, though others mentioned specific issues important to conservative voters such as immigration and family values.
The majority of ads run by candidates including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Fred Thompson were direct-response in nature, prompting users to sign up for campaign events or donate. But Romney’s campaign ran some of the only Web ads created for branding or persuasion purposes. Millions of ads placed by the campaign declared, “Republicans Have to Get Our Own House in Order. Stop wasteful spending. Secure the borders. Insist on high ethical standards.”
In what was the first use by a presidential campaign of the video overlay format, Romney for President re-purposed a TV spot featuring footage of the candidate bouncing grandkids on his knee, along with other family film archives. The ads were presented as an overlay unit layered within the lower portion of a video clip, and targeted contextually based on socially-conservative and family related keywords found in the clip’s audio. Launched in October, the user-initiated ads played while video content was paused and linked to the campaign’s site registration page.
The campaign didn’t shun direct response ads, though. Gimmicky “Project 44” ads urged supporters to “Donate $44 for the Future 44th President,” and ads run early in the year pushed local campaign events, asking people to “Join the Rally Today.”
Early in 2007, the campaign bought ads direct on sites such as FoxNews.com, MSN Money or newspaper sites in early primary states based on real data about where Republicans spent time online. After the team began buying more through ad networks, Romney made headlines for inadvertently running thousands of ad impressions on Gay.com and other gay lifestyle sites, which weren’t exactly in synch with some of the candidate’s conservative stances.
Despite chalking up the mishap to ad network problems, the campaign has continued buying more ads through networks. “We’re primarily very focused on geo-targeting,” said Finn, adding, “We want to own, so to speak, the inventory for a certain state.” The campaign has targeted ads to people in early primary and caucus states including South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida.
Romney for President also used Advertising.com to re-target display ads to people who had clicked on an ad but hadn’t taken the desired action the first time around, such as registering with Team Mitt.
The campaign measured ad success by the number of volunteer signups gathered or value of contributions collected as a result of click-through; it also devised a formula based on how many potential Iowa caucus voters, for instance, were reached per dollar spent.
Leading up to today’s do-or-die Michigan election, the Romney camp has purchased Michigan-related search ads pushing users to a volunteer sign-up page. A Google search for “Romney Michigan” turns up an ad touting Romney’s familiarity with the downtrodden state: “Mitt Romney for President. He knows Michigan. He knows business. He wants to help.” The ad leads to the MittRomney.com home page featuring video of a TV spot displaying photos of Mitt with his dad George, Governor of Michigan in the 1960s, and a link to “Michigan HQ,” where supporters were urged to join the candidate this morning for a last-minute rally.