Political Consultants Open to Inevitable Digital Future

Austin, TX – Political campaigns typically still spend only a single digit percentage of their ad budgets on digital media. However, if the presence of digital firms and the focus on digital media in agenda content are any indication, the consultants who hold the purse strings convened for their annual conference here may be more open to moving additional money online than ever before.

Despite the still small budget allocations going to digital, companies like Microsoft, AT&T, and many others see value in marketing here at the historically traditional media centric conference. Things have changed for the American Association of Political Consultants. The conference this year, hosted by a city still reeling from its SXSW frenzy, is decidedly focused on educating attendees about using digital media and incorporating it in their cross-platform buys.

Two keynotes are Internet-themed, several panels deal with digital media including one about using online ads for persuasion and another about online fundraising. There was a YouTube awards ceremony on Thursday, and a session on interactive TV set for today.

“The industry has been changing for the last six or seven years at a pretty rapid pace. The pace is going to accelerate like watching an old Star Trek movie – warp speed,” said Dale Emmons, AAPC president. “You have to be equipped to [use new platforms] or you’ll lose your competitive advantage.”

Around half of the firms exhibiting here in the hopes of attracting political dollars are in the digital space, including video firms YuMe, TubeMogul and Mixpo, Campaign Cloud – a partnership between Microsoft and ElectionMall, and AT&T AdWorks, which offers interactive TV, online, and mobile advertising. Facebook and Google are also exhibiting, and Twitter’s director of Washington sales, Peter Greenberger is attending.

Political consultants are starting to see the writing on the wall, recognizing they can’t reach some voters with live TV anymore, and that key groups like Hispanics use mobile phones more than others. According to a Spring 2011 Pew Internet study, Hispanics are more likely to have a mobile phone than white non-Hispanics – 86 percent compared to 80 percent.

“All of the TV is going to be bought up, all the radio’s going to be bought up in the general election. There’s only one place that local campaigns, statewide campaigns, down ballot races and even the presidentials who have any money left over to go and buy advertising and get in front of their audience and in front of their voters, and that’s online,” said Jim Walsh, co-founder and CEO of DSPolitical.

“Whether the traditional media guys like it or not, online is the only place those dollars can go at this point unless you’re doing a direct mail campaign and even then you have to make sure to back that up with some sort of online message.”

Media firms here that once sold only television advertising are heavily promoting their digital products. A standing room only panel held Thursday on “Integrating Your Media Plan in a Multi-Screen World” was sponsored by cable TV companies NCC Charter Media, Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox. Univision is also here, and stressing its digital offerings including video advertising.

Even the Chicago Press Corp., a printing company pushing its traditional media services in the expo hall is giving away the ironic gift of a Kindle.

While digital media proponents have been struggling to pry more money away from reluctant political consultants for years, Emmons believes consultants are ready to use digital media. “I haven’t talked to anybody who’s not receptive. Smart people look for the best widget,” he said, noting that for the first time the conference was marketed entirely online.

“It’s not a single tool. It’s not just digital media. It’s a combination of old school, new school, and what we don’t know the next school will be.”

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