John McCain 2008 has been rattled by departures and staff switch-ups, mainstream media harping on his lack of funding, and insider media speculating on the shifting cogs in his campaign machine. Indeed, some online pundits say the reported layoff of his ecampaign manager earlier this month alone spells doom for McCain, despite the early stage of the primary season. Could the pared down campaign be doing something different on the Web to hoist the Republican Arizona Senator out of the perceived slump?
New campaign manager Rick Davis, who served McCain in his 2000 run for commander-in-chief, took a stab at starting the process in a July 11 e-mail note, suggesting subscribers send the message to five of their friends and “show Senator McCain you’re standing up for him just as he has stood up for us by making an online donation.”
Web commentators, including Republican online strategist Patrick Ruffini, have taken aim at McCain’s e-mail strategy and questioned the campaign’s drop-off in display advertising. “[T]heir once ubiquitous Google display ads disappeared from sites like mine,” wrote Ruffini on the TechPresident blog earlier this month. “It’s clear than [sic] when push came to shove, the higher-ups did not view a sophisticated Web operation as the profit center it is on almost all campaigns that try it.”
Though Ruffini’s conclusion may be based on anecdotal evidence, the numbers bear out his assumption. Data from Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance show McCain’s online ad impressions have dwindled from 11.5 million impressions in April, to 8.7 million in May, to a relatively conservative 92,000 in June.
The campaign hasn’t ditched Web advertising, say the folks working in the trenches. “We’re just reevaluating what we’re doing,” said Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at political consulting agency Connell Donatelli Inc., the firm handling some Internet components of the McCain campaign. “We’re spending the money as judiciously as possible,” he added, noting summertime isn’t always the best time to advertise, nor is it the best time of year for fundraising.
“You’ll see the ads running again; you’ll see new ads from us,” said Frenchman, most likely closer to September when people become more engaged in the primaries.
Though 92,000 impressions is more than none — which is what most presidential campaigns have been running — Connell Donatelli is putting more money and effort into McCain’s search marketing campaign lately. “Every single day I’m adding in hundreds of keywords based on issues, based on things I’m reading online,” said Frenchman.
Whether he’s buying keywords specifically to counteract the negative press and commentary about the campaign, however, he wouldn’t say specifically. “There is a strategy that I’m’ working on….I wouldn’t call it trying to counteract negativity,” he said.
It makes sense the higher-ups would allow for more SEM. According to Connell Donatelli, since near the beginning, the campaign has been garnering an average of $4 in fundraising cash for every $1 it spends on search advertising. Overall, according to the consulting firm, search has accounted for around 40 percent of online donations. The campaign also runs display and video ads through Google’s AdSense network.
“If they don’t have cash on hand,” the campaign shouldn’t spend much on Web ads, said Morra Aarons, independent democratic consultant and a staffer on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential interactive campaign. Instead, she thinks the McCain effort would be better served using free or inexpensive tools like viral video.
“We’re running as much video as we possibly can through Google,” said Frenchman, who said the campaign makes sure video clips are well-optimized for search. Still, results for McCain-related or simply timely issue-related video searches tend to be dominated by YouTube links. Official campaign site visitors will also find several professionally-produced videos and clips filmed at events.
“There’s a narrative waiting to be written and the narrative is that McCain…is running this scaled down campaign,” said Matt Lewis, a Republican campaign consultant and director of operations for conservative opinion site Townhall.com, where the McCain campaign placed display ads earlier in the campaign season. According to Lewis, McCain could be distributing video footage of supporters canvassing door-to-door or participating in phone banking. “The media loves turnaround stories,” said Lewis, adding, “McCain has a lot of time to turn around.”
In the end, most agree it all comes down to the candidate and the message. “They need to right the ship…and no amount of clever ads or a great Facebook presence is going to help,” said Aarons.
“Their problem is not the tactical issues surrounding their use of the Internet,” said Hal Malchow, president of political consulting firm MSHC Partners. “The best way to fix the campaign is not with the tactics of the Internet, but with the strength of the message.”
Frenchman pointed to what he reports as the recent prowess of McCain’s online efforts, such as increased site traffic and contributions, “What we’re doing online has gotten better. The message is driving that. [McCain is] driving that.”