Online Political Ads: We’ve Only Just Begun

The current presidential campaign will be remembered as the one in which political Web sites came into their own. Though far less prominent in the campaign, online ads show promise as well, observers said.

“A well-mounted strategic online advertising campaign could be invaluable for candidates,” said Jonathan Trenn, principal of Pericles Consulting. Trenn believes online advertising will come into its own in the near future, perhaps by the next presidential election.

This year, neither President Bush’s nor Senator Kerry’s campaign has done much more than dip its toes in the waters of online advertising, according to data from Nielsen//NetRatings’ AdRelevance unit. Between Dec. 2003 and Feb. 2004, Kerry’s campaign bought only 2.2 million online ad impressions. The Bush campaign showed even less interest during this period, buying only 8,000 — all of them on one site, Yahoo.

Rand Ragusa, whose firm, Voter Interactive, designed skyscraper ads used by the Kerry campaign late last year, believes interactive advertising should be a vital element of online campaigns.

“It’s not enough to just have a Web site,” said Ragusa. “You have to have strategies in place to drive people to your site, whether that’s through links, search engines, or banners.

“When people see a TV commercial they don’t write the URL down, but when they see that banner they know they’re one click away from the Web site,” Ragusa said.

While Bush’s own campaign ran very few online ads over the past few months, users scanning news and political sites can currently find the President popping up, literally, with a series of Republican National Committee (RNC) ads. The RNC has run a total of 248 million impressions online between Dec. and Feb., according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

One ad, “Democrats can’t decide,” shows Kerry with his hand pressed to his forehead looking lost, with the message underneath, “The economy is improving; but the Democrats are voting against tax cuts.” The ads link to the RNC Web site.

The pop-ups launched in January, garnering a .27 percent click-through rate, which went up to .42 in February, a 55 percent increase, said RNC spokeswoman Mary Ellen Grant.

“In our opinion that clearly shows people are becoming more engaged in the campaign,” Grant said.

The campaign probably marks the first time pop-up ads have been used on behalf of a major presidential candidate. Though industry experts agree pop-ups can generate a higher click-through than traditional display ads, pop-ups can be a double-edged sword.

A recent study by Jupiter Research found that 40 percent of users consider pop-up ads the “most aggravating” type of online advertising, ahead of four other kinds of ads, including spam, which was cited by 29 percent of respondents. (Jupitermedia, parent of this publication owns Jupiter Research.) Nonetheless, the study confirmed that users do click on pop-ups at a higher rate.

Ragusa found the ads’ creative simple and to the point, with strong photography and a call to action that is “simple and easy to get for the average user.” However, he criticized the frequency and format.

“They were inundating people with their January strategy. Every time you logged on to Hotmail or visited CNN.com, there was another one of those pop-ups,” Ragusa said.

Working for the Kerry campaign, Ragusa’s firm designed skyscraper ads that ran in the employment sections of online newspapers. The text asked, “Are you tired of being unemployed?” superimposed over a full-length photo of Kerry. Clicking on the ad took people to Kerry’s Web site.

“That’s a great technique — placing ads where media would not expect them to appear,” said Dan Melleby of Westhill Partners, a consulting firm that advised Richard Gephardt’s campaign. “By choosing online newspapers they saved a lot of money and did something unexpected. And they’re hitting their target audience quite nicely.”

Altogether, Kerry’s campaign has run full banner, rectangle and skyscraper ads on a number of sites. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the ads garnered 524,000 impressions on Webshots, 331,000 impressions on satire site The Onion (obviously, someone in the campaign has a sense of humor, or at least irony) and 189,000 impressions on AnyWho. The ads also ran on FanFiction.net (134,000 impressions), BlackPlanet.com, JigZone, AccuWeather, CNN Money and FreeArcade, among other sites. There’s still a long way to go — both for the campaigns and for online political advertising. As Michael Cornfield, associate research professor of political management at George Washington University, said: “We’re still waiting for someone to do for online advertising what Howard Dean did for online fundraising.”

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