Democrats fretting over the digital prowess of newly-elected Republican Scott Brown’s campaign may take heart in knowing another recent special election turned their way. Democrat David Marsden won a tight race for the Virginia State Senate by only around 300 votes, and some campaign insiders believe the state’s Senate Democratic Caucus’s insistence on using online advertising – and its willingness to pay for it – may have helped.
According to Steve Pazmino, executive director of the Virginia Senate’s Democratic Caucus, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw wanted the Marsden camp to buy online ads. To hear Pazmino tell it, Saslaw had been influenced by a new media consultant family member. “We at the caucus said, ‘You’re going to use these guys,’ ” said Pazmino, referring to Chong and Koster, the digital consulting firm that handled the online ad buy.
The caucus’s decision to push Web advertising is “a sign of something positive that people in leadership positions are starting to get it,” said Jonah Seiger, lead digital media strategist for the Bloomberg 2009 New York City Mayoral campaign, and founder of digital consulting firm Connections Media. “I hope it heralds more investment and more awareness that [using online ads] should be a no brainer.”
“The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus is the one who paid for and authorized this,” said Pazmino. “The caucus is always involved in state senate races, and we always supervise and help fund these races.”
Mark Henson, Marsden’s campaign manager, said the caucus also paid for the campaign’s direct mail through “in-kind” funds, while the Marsden campaign itself paid for TV advertising.
The tight win of the Fairfax County seat gives Democrats breathing room in the state senate, and follows a big win last year for Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. “We wanted to do everything we could to show Democrats can still win here,” explained Pazmino.
Using Online Ads Took Arm-Twisting – and Funding
The caucus spent $15,000 on a brief Web ad campaign, a significant expense considering it was targeted to a small region and ran for only about a week leading before election day on January 12. Henson suggested the ads helped Marsden eke out the win. “Online advertising contributed to that perfect storm that let us pull off this upset,” he said, also stressing the importance of all campaign components. Henson said, “I’m definitely more likely now to dedicate more resources toward online advertising.”
But if it weren’t for the caucus’s prodding, he may not have considered using online ads. “I think that especially with a smaller race with a compressed timeframe there were certain things I knew absolutely had to be funded [such as the field operation and direct mail],” he explained. “Looking at the money that I had…if the caucus had not come to us…I don’t know if I would have been able to afford [online advertising].”
The campaign used ads placed on Facebook and liberal blogs, along with Google’s display and in-stream video networks, to target different ad messages to likely Democrats, as well as likely Republicans and Independents it hoped to sway in Marsden’s direction.
Negative ad messages about Republican opponent Steve Hunt were targeted to likely Republicans and Independents. Display ads included lines from a Washington Post editorial describing Hunt as “remembered mainly for being unanimously censured,” and for having “consistently bad judgment.”
Going Negative for Swing Voters
“We had a singular article from a very credible source that gave us a lot of ammunition, and because we could link through to the original source material, it gave us license to make stronger claims than normal,” said Josh Koster, managing partner at Chong and Koster. “The ads almost dared people to verify the claims.”
“We definitely targeted Republicans using the Internet as a percentage of spending more than we did [using] other campaign activities,” he added.
Meanwhile, people in Democratic-leaning precincts saw more positive ads about Marsden, also referring to the Washington Post editorial, which endorsed the candidate as “well respected” and “a stark choice.”
The caucus treated the Marsden online effort as a test, to help determine “at what level we think we need to spend on our [online] targeting campaigns in the future,” said Pazmino. The fact that it was a special election held in one of the coldest months of the year when most people are not tuned into local political races meant the campaign could experiment.
In all, close to 4 percent of the campaign’s media spending went towards online ads. In addition to the $15,000 spent on around 8 million Web ad impressions, the campaign spent $225,000 on direct mail, $65,000 on cable television spots, and around $100,000 on other efforts such as door-to-door canvassing and robo-calls.
Online ads provide “tremendous bang for your buck…because the impressions which lead to clicks are so much less expensive than when it comes to other media, ” said Pazmino, adding that similar efforts “will become a part of every caucus targeted campaign.”
Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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