As TV ad sellers know, primary season is prime time for local political advertising. Although we are bound to see online ads geo-targeted to voters in swing states or important districts leading to the general election, the primaries have spurred state-based online ad buying by the campaigns.
Sure, they buy direct on newspaper and TV sites. However, much of their local advertising this cycle is done by targeting Web users in key states and regions through ad networks like AOL’s Advertising.com and large portals such as Yahoo.
Specific formats range from geo-targeted display ads to keyword-based search ads aimed at specific locales to video ads. When it comes to the latter, in addition to placing their television spots on YouTube and their own sites at little to no cost, some of the candidates have run TV ads in pre-roll slots online.
Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign has aimed search ads to voters in primary states such as Pennsylvania, and targeted specific landing pages to residents of certain states. Senator John McCain’s camp has been a prolific online advertiser. Still, his near-guaranteed Republican nominee status heading into his party’s convention means his campaign doesn’t have to focus much on targeting voters in primary states.
Even early on in the primary season, some candidate campaigns were believers in geographically targeting online. “We’re primarily very focused on geo-targeting,” Mitt Romney’s e-strategy director Mindy Finn told ClickZ News before the Republican ended his presidential bid. “We want to own, so to speak, the inventory for a certain state.” The campaign targeted ads through networks including Advertising.com to people in early primary and caucus states like South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida.
Buckeye and Lone Star News Sites Score Big
Of the three main primary contenders, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign seems to have done the most local online advertising, some of it especially innovative. A more compelling local Web effort involved big multimedia ad buys on local news homepages.
Before the contentious Texas and Ohio Democratic primaries, Obama grabbed the attention of voters in those states with large expandable video ads on sites like Ohio’s CantonRep.com, DallasNews.com, and MySanAntonio.com. In all, the ads were seen on 22 homepages for about a week before the March 4 primaries. Through local Web media firm Centro, the campaign bought on four Ohio and 12 Texas sites in WorldNow’s ad network, along with 10 newspaper sites.
Ads on Waco Tribune-Herald’s WacoTrib.com and The Akron Beacon Journal’s Ohio.com were stamped with the slogan, “Change We Can Believe In.” Users were enticed to expand the Flash billboard to reveal a video message from the candidate, viewable in the ad itself.
WorldNow Chief Revenue Officer Adam Gordon stressed the significance of the network effect in facilitating the campaign’s broad regional media buy. “It speaks to the need for aggregation,” he said. “That’s why you see a big trend in the industry moving towards partnerships to scale…. Aggregation empowers advertisers to work with local stations the same way they partner with a national URL site.”
The ads localized the grassroots-driven approach taken by the Obama camp throughout the lengthy primary season. All along, the campaign has run Web ads to collect e-mail addresses and other contact information of supporters, the goal being to get them to volunteer, attend local events, or donate cash.
In this case, because Ohio and Texas both support early primary voting, the ads prodded people to vote before primary day, and find the closest early voting location. “Have you tried the convenience of early voting? Find your early-vote location,” urged the ad.
Not only did the campaign create specific messaging centered on Ohio’s early voting and the more involved “Texas Two-Step” process; it used a variety of embedded TV spots. A Texas-aimed video focused on losing jobs overseas, the “misguided” Iraq war and the chance for “a nation healed, an America that believes again.” Video in an Ohio-targeted creative touched on affordable healthcare, Iraq, ending tax breaks for companies moving jobs overseas, and tax cuts for the middle class.
Early voting in the Lone Star and Buckeye states ended before the ad run, so the ads required a mid-campaign alteration. Once early voting closed, ad copy simply asked people to vote and click-through to find their local polling place.
Additional ads, most likely targeted to Texas voters through online ad networks like Advertising.com, Valueclick or Google’s AdSense, complemented Obama’s multimedia homepage effort. The campaign aimed millions of standard display units at Texas voters promoting early voting in February. Nielsen Online’s AdRelevance caught ads for the Illinois Senator on local sites including Austin’s Statesman.com and ToledoBlade.com. Despite the efforts, Obama lost to Clinton in both states.
As the Pennsylvania primary edged closer in mid-April, Obama for America aimed issue-based ads to news site visitors in the state. Purely focused on persuasion, the ads marked a first for the Obama campaign when it comes to Web advertising.
Ads on PA television sites and newspaper sites like Trib Total Media’s PittsburghLive.com and Philadelphia Media Holdings’ Philly.com inquired, “Which presidential candidate refuses money from oil company PACs and their Washington lobbyists?” The campaign aimed to reach voters feeling the pinch of high gas prices. Think lower and middle income people, blue collar workers, and older demographics prone to visiting hometown newspaper and TV station sites.
Until then, the Obama camp had steered away from persuasion-based online ads, focusing instead on a specific call to action. For instance, complementary display ads targeted to Pennsylvania Web users pushed them to update their voter registration to ensure they were eligible to vote in the Keystone State’s Democratic primary.
Clinton ran only some text search ads targeted to Pennsylvanians, yet she won the state’s Democratic primary.
Web Ads for Iowans
Way back in December 2007, when the Democratic primary field was still crowded with contenders, Obama and Governor Bill Richardson customized ad creative for Iowa Caucus goers.
“The war in Iraq has cost Iowans $3.5 billion,” read one Richardson ad, which linked to a micro-site, thedifferenceoniraq.com. The campaign even pushed a specific event in Des Moines in ads suggesting that voters, “Join former U.N. Ambassador and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Governor Bill Richardson for a speech on the crisis in Pakistan.”
Ads for Obama also included Iowa caucus-related messages. One promoted a Precinct Finder, Caucus FAQ, Student Center and Local Obama Events.
Local Web Spending Still Lost to TV
In addition to the presidential campaigns, a handful of savvy congressional candidates have started to place online ads for this year’s election. Still, the majority of congressional, statewide and local candidates lag far behind presidential campaigns when it comes to even considering advertising online.
If spending on online political advertising is a drop in the political ad bucket, it might require a microscope to see the dollars flowing towards local online media. One insider estimated local online dollars account for about 10 percent of what the candidates are spending online, which is typically split between display and paid search.
Considering estimates for all online political ad spending could be as low as $20 million in 2008, that doesn’t leave much of a pie to carve up at the local level.
Why are the presidential campaigns spending so little on local Web media? It’s still all about television. According to one online political consultant, campaigns are so concerned with keeping up when it comes to TV spending, the Web — be it local or not — gets short shrift.