Yesterday’s closely-watched special congressional election in New York’s 20th District prompted the use of a rarely-employed online ad tactic some liken to carpet bombing. Call it the “Google Surge” or the “Google Network Blast,” the ad tactic has piqued the interest of old-school political media consultants typically reluctant to consider using Internet ads for anything other than fundraising or building supporter lists.
From late Sunday night through noon yesterday, ads for Democratic contender Scott Murphy blanketed Web pages viewed by residents of the district, which encompasses Saratoga Springs, Lake Placid, Glens Falls, and Oneonta.
The tactic tested by the Murphy campaign involves serving up ads on behalf of one advertiser on most or all of the Google content network pages generated within a short period within a specific geographic area, in this case New York’s 20th congressional district and some surrounding areas to catch local commuters at work.
“That was appealing to us from a mass media perspective; we can use the Internet to reach a large number of voters in a concentrated area,” said Philip de Vellis, VP of new media at democratic political media consulting outfit Murphy Putnam Media. According to de Villis, the Murphy campaign (no relation to the consulting firm) spent $25,000 on the Google ads.
The congressional seat opened up after New York Senator Hillary Clinton was named Secretary of State, forcing a game of legislative musical chairs. When New York Representative Kirsten Gillibrand took Clinton’s senate seat, the race for her congressional slot was on.
The virtual ad bombing tactic has been used by a handful of other political advertisers — most notably as part of a campaign supporting California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in that state. Some corporate advertisers looking to tout a new product such as pizza restaurants and automakers have also used the ad bombardment approach.
The goal is akin more to a classic television campaign than a typical online political ad effort. In short, the Google blasters aim to persuade voters just before an election by getting their ad messages in front of them multiple times within a short time frame.
The Murphy campaign expected to hit the district’s 650,000 residents who visited a site in Google’s AdSense network with around 12.5 million display ad impressions during the 36-hour period before noon Tuesday. “I assume the GOP had some Google ads going, just not at the level we were at during the 36-hour period before noon Tuesday,” said de Villis.
“Tedisco helps donor get out of jail…but says ‘no’ help for middle class,” read some of the ads, displaying the image of Murphy’s opponent, Republican Jim Tedisco. The majority, however, feature President Obama and his endorsement of Murphy: “Scott Murphy is the right candidate for Upstate New York. Vote Tuesday.” Obama’s post-campaign organization, Organizing for America, along with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee assisted the Murphy campaign through e-mails and blogger interaction, according to de Villis.
This late in the game, the goal is no longer to get voters to click through to drum up donations or recruit volunteers. It’s to convince undecided voters to vote for a particular candidate, or remind supporters they need to vote. “We’re just trying to persuade them to vote for our candidate instead of the other candidate…I know that [the ads are] going to have a really low click-through rate,” said de Villis.
Political advertisers use TV and radio spots for similar purposes — to persuade voters through regular repetition of their ads. Google promises a similarly broad reach and regular frequency of ad impressions through its content network. “I think it speaks to [political advertisers] because you can compare it to what they know,” said Peter Greenberger, Google’s manager of elections and advocacy.
And that’s just what Google has been doing. About six weeks ago the firm held a lunch in its Washington, DC offices for Democratic and Republican media consultants and strategists, people who usually produce ads for radio and TV. Greenberger presented them with a host of ad offerings including what the company calls its Network Blast. The tactic is also referred to as the “Google Surge” by some in the political world, many of whom tend to employ military terms to describe their practices.
“When it came to this option, [Google] said this most resembles a TV buy, and then everybody started listening,” said de Vellis, who attended the lunch meeting. “It struck a chord; they understand mass brand awareness,” he said.
“They’re not especially comfortable with direct response advertising,” said Greenberger of traditional political media buyers. Although political advertisers have used online search and display advertising for messages with direct calls to action to garner contact information, donations, or promote voter registration, they rarely employ Web ads for persuasion.
Another comfort factor is the pricing model. While most ads sold by Google — and an increasing number of all online ads — are sold on a performance basis, the Murphy campaign and others using the blast approach have purchased the ads on a CPM basis, the same way they’re accustomed to buying traditional media.
In addition to some search advertising on Google’s own site throughout the campaign, the Murphy camp complemented its last-minute ad onslaught, with Facebook ads targeted to 18-25 year-olds in the district for five days before the election. Like the Google ads, the focus was more on Obama than Murphy. “Help Obama This Tuesday,” declared the text-heavy ads, which told Facebook users, “President Obama needs Scott Murphy in Congress to help create 76,000 jobs for Update New York.” According to de Villis, the campaign spent about $5,000 on Facebook for 5 million impressions, or about $1 per thousand ad impressions.
UPDATE: The story originally reported that the Murphy campaign targeted the top 20 zip codes in New York’s 20th congressional district; however, the campaign targeted the entire district and some surrounding areas.
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