The 2010 election season marked the first election cycle that the National Republican Congressional Committee had a team of people dedicated to assisting GOP House hopefuls with their online campaigns. The organization points to races in which the use of online ads helped winning Republicans extend reach beyond saturated TV media markets in the final days, and fight smears.
The NRCC singled out around 50 challengers and open-seat candidates it deemed worthy of special attention in 2010, 40 of whom won, with a few races still too close to call. Some of these “Young Guns” may not have employed digital media efforts to the extent they did had it not been for some prodding by the committee, particularly people like Rebecca Mark, online strategist at the NRCC.
“I’m the field person who works with all races across the country,” said Mark. “I work with races where online is going to be a factor and where they’re willing to experiment with it.”
The NRCC’s eCampaign team consists of four others in addition to Mark, including its director and a video/web editor.
Winning Republicans who helped their party recapture control of the House, including Bob Dold from Illinois, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, and Florida’s Daniel Webster, all used online ads for various reasons this year. Dold and Noem were Young Guns, non-incumbents chosen because they fulfilled certain criteria such as campaign momentum and fundraising prowess.
“I worked very hard on getting a lot of campaigns to do [online advertising],” said Mark. For instance, she believed key factors could convince the Dold campaign to allocate more money to online ads. One was the saturated and pricey Illinois TV ad market – particularly in the Chicago area near the 10th District in which Dold was running. In addition to several other congressional races, both the governor’s seat and a U.S. Senate seat were up for grabs. Mark also knew the Dold campaign had already done some digital advertising, making it less of a tough sell to suggest they do more.
“With the Dold campaign, I had enough of a knowledge that they were doing some online advertising,” she told ClickZ News. “When it became clear they had the opportunity to blow the lid off this market…I reached out to the campaign manager.” Mark connected the campaign with Google to explore how they could use online ads to reach 10th District voters working in Chicago, and help compensate for a dearth of affordable TV inventory.
“Certainly the cost of the media market played a role in this,” said Mark. “They weren’t able to spend nearly as much [on TV] as you would in a traditional race….[Using online ads] was an idea that I mentioned to them, and said it would cost them essentially as much as a mail piece to run these ads,” she added.
In the end, she said, the Dold campaign targeted 9.8 million ad impressions on Facebook to voters in the Chicago area during the last 10 days before the election, in addition to targeting display ads through Google’s network between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to people working in Chicago. The campaign also ran Google search ads. Ads were aimed at conservatives, moderates and Republicans. Ads seen on the Monday before election day and on election day used the slogan, “We need a job maker, not a job killer,” and directed people to vote. Dold won the election by fewer than 3 percentage points.
The Dold campaign also used the popular Google blast technique, which delivers an ad onslaught to users in a specific geographic location for a narrow period of time, usually one to three days. Another tight race – this one in South Dakota where NRCC Young Gun Noem ran for the state’s at-large congressional seat – used a variety of online ad formats, according to Mark. The Kristi for Congress campaign used display and in-stream video advertising along with targeted e-mails using purchased lists. The campaign wanted to buy up more inventory than the state’s sparse population may have allowed – even online display inventory.
“They were buying up so much online media in the state, basically Google didn’t have the [display] inventory to meet budget toward the end,” said Mark. The campaign decided to stretch its get-out-the-vote Google network ad surge from one to three days. Noem – a big Republican fundraiser this election – beat her Democratic opponent, incumbent S.H. Sandlin, by about 2 percentage points.
The race for Florida’s 8th Congressional District seat drew national attention after Democrat Alan Grayson ran an ad disparaging his opponent Republican Daniel Webster as disrespectful toward women. The “Taliban Dan” ad took strategically chosen clips from a Webster speech about Bible passages that implied he believed women should submit to him.
To counteract the negative ads, Webster’s campaign bought search ads targeted against terms including “Taliban Dan,” according to Mark, who said the ads “provided [the Webster campaign] with opportunity to fight back.” They also drove people to Webster’s site, which featured video of the full speech, and helped rake in $200,000 in donations. Webster won by around 18 percentage points.
It has been “a challenge to point to examples of how a small House races can use online,” said Mark. Campaigns like those of Dold, Noem, and Webster, she said, can now can serve as examples.