Digital Politics: What Mattered in 2009

ClickZ's Politics and Advocacy looks back at the year in digital political campaigning, and asks consultants on the right and left what mattered in '09.

ClickZ News - Politics & AdvocacyThere were few big elections in 2009, but political and advocacy advertisers took the momentum built in the 2008 presidential elections and ran with it. From a surge in Twitter usage to the Google Surge, a variety of tools and techniques gained ground.

Twitter as Campaign Tool
The increased use of Twitter by political office holders, candidates, and issue advocacy organizations and campaigns was arguably the most important — if not hyped — advancement in digital politics in 2009. Campaigns like that of recently re-elected New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg employed Twitter as a component of its online engagement strategy, and even promoted the @mikebloomberg account in ads targeting people in New York City who searched Google for “Twitter.”

The short-messaging tool was also used by his and other campaigns to help get out the vote near election day. Still, while the candidate himself refrained from posting to Twitter throughout most of his campaign, other political figures such as Sarah Palin and Senator Claire McCaskill took a more personal approach.

Hash Tags and Healthcare
Twitter also gained prominence as a tool for advocacy groups and campaigns. As the healthcare reform debate heated up, campaigns and advocates on all sides promoted Twitter hash tags such as #handsoff, #hcr and #publicoption as a means of harnessing the social media discussion around the issue. However, like brand marketers, many advocacy and nonprofit groups struggled to measure how their social media numbers translated to tangible action and real donations.

Indeed, when all is said and done, healthcare reform could prove to be the most potent issue to drive online advocacy efforts yet.

Online Advertising’s Advocates
While Twitter and other social platforms like Facebook became more important to political and advocacy campaigns, Web marketing in general grew. Groups with relatively small budgets looked to the Web to reach supporters through paid search, display, and video advertising. Though many trade associations and advocacy groups were online advertising novices in 2009, they began allocating more money online, testing search advertising, and extending traditional media campaigns to the Web. And some — like the National Women’s Law Center — ran online advertising exclusively.

Paid Search Sophistication
Paid search came into its own as a political campaign tool during the ’08 elections. However, this year, some campaigns took search advertising to a higher level, recognizing its ability to capture and exploit interest in timely issues and current events. As South Carolina Democrat Rob Miller, a candidate for Congress in 2010, reaped the rewards of his opponent’s “You Lie! ” outburst during a speech by President Obama this September, his rivals used Google ads to cash in on a spike in searches about the incident. Searches for the briefly-popular term, “you lie” turned up ads for Miller’s opponent, Republican Joe Wilson, as well as Republican Congressman Tom Price of Georgia, collecting donations and signups for his Voice for Freedom PAC.

The Get-Out-The-Vote Google Surge
Growing sophistication of search advertising by political campaigns in 2009 was also evident in the increased use of a Google ad tactic known as the Google surge or blast. Typically employed for get-out-the-vote efforts, the surge involves serving up display ads on behalf of a single advertiser on most or all of the Google content network pages generated within a brief period, targeting a specific geographic area. Though it originated in 2008, the tactic was employed by several winning Democratic and Republican campaigns this year including Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary winner, Creigh Deeds and the winner of New York’s 20th District special election, Scott Murphy. By November, the surge had become more of a standard part of the online get-out-the-vote arsenal, through its use in the winning campaigns of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Mike Bloomberg.

Thoughts from Digital Political Consultants

ClickZ asked digital political consultants what they think mattered in ’09 (and it wasn’t all about Twitter). Here’s what they said:

Eric Frenchman, Chief Internet Strategist, Connell Donatelli
“I think this was a turning point for digital marketing. There are so many different organizations running display ads, paid search ads — a lot more than 2008.” Frenchman, a search marketing specialist who handled online advertising for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, pointed to a handful of tactics and ad offerings used in 2009 he especially liked, including improvements in Facebook ad targeting, Google video overlay ads, and Organizing for America’s Tweet Your Senator, a tool allowing people to send tweets about healthcare reform to their senators.

Colin Delany, Founder,
For Delany, who does digital consulting work for progressive advocacy, nonprofit, and electoral clients, 2009 was less about any one platform, and more important for the ways in which digital media was — or wasn’t — used. The first thing that came to his mind when asked what mattered in ’09: “Bob McDonnell running a very competent comprehensive online campaign, showing that Democrats have no monopoly on this at all.”

He also acknowledged former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s use of Facebook to spread her messages. “It’s showing how somebody can really do an end run around the media.” Lastly, Delany called out Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee-run group housing the Obama for America database for a lackluster performance this year. “Obama’s online army were the dog that didn’t bark in the night,” he said. “The gap between what they were able to do with the supporter list during the campaign, and what they did with it this year is dramatic…They really did become essentially a non-factor at a time when Republicans were out in public spreading their message extremely effectively.”

Mindy Finn, Partner, Engage
“Candidates have taken to Twitter like no other online application,” said Finn, whose digital consulting firm serves Republican and conservative campaigns including the McDonnell campaign. “In 2009, you had candidates — like Bob McDonnell — using Twitter to directly engage an opponent in a challenge for a series of debates, and reporters using direct tweets from candidates as quotes in stories.”

“Also, 2009 has been the year of doing it all, where not one digital tool or tactic stands alone. Instead, campaigns are no longer after the new, shiny toy, but following the ‘Be Everywhere’ approach and converging on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.”

Josh Koster, Managing Partner, Chong and Koster
Koster, whose firm works with progressive political and corporate clients, chose in-stream video advertising: “No question.” Though his firm used in-stream advertising in 2008, Koster told ClickZ the amount of inventory has spiked so much that not using in-stream digital video advertising in campaigns today is akin to not buying cable TV a few years ago. In 2009, the firm bought in-stream ads through four ad networks for all its ballot campaign clients. He added that half of the company’s budget came from this form of advertising — enough so that Chong and Koster has adjusted the way it bills media consultants to account for the use of their TV ad creative.

David All, President, David All Group
“2009 will be remembered as the year direct media mobilization and advocacy efforts started taking hold,” said All, whose digital consultancy serves Republican and conservative campaigns. “Citizens throughout the nation have been empowered by tools, like Facebook and Twitter, to organize around events and causes and reach important decision-makers through these direct one-to-one mediums.”

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