I haven’t come across other stories on the ‘Net localizing the impact of technology on state or local political races, so I wrote one here, for the RTD, called “Online ads in Va. gubernatorial race ‘set the standard’”
Online ads in Va. gubernatorial race ‘set the standard’
By: CHRIS I. YOUNG TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Published: November 16, 2009
The day before the Nov. 3 election, Bob McDonnell’s campaign paid Google about $39,000 to saturate computers in Virginia and Washington with banner ads promoting the candidate.
People surfing the Internet during a 12-hour period in Virginia, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Washington, saw McDonnell’s banner ads 14 million times during that stretch.
During the campaign for governor, the Republican McDonnell and his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds, both aggressively used online ads — banner ads that appear on Web sites, and sponsored links that appear after a user types in search terms such as “McDonnell thesis.”
“This is the first time campaigns made serious investments of persuasive ads online,” said Nate Wilcox, senior strategist at WebStrong Group in D.C., an online consulting firm.
After news of McDonnell’s master’s thesis broke on Aug. 29, people went to their computers in droves to look up “McDonnell thesis” in Google.
McDonnell and Deeds immediately fired up their spin engines in media interviews, TV ads, Web pages, Facebook posts and more.
“A majority of the electorate is getting their political news and information on the Internet,” said Mindy Finn, senior strategist with Engage LLC, which consulted for the McDonnell campaign. “The campaign was responding to that. . . . It was critically important.”
When the controversy over McDonnell’s master’s thesis began, both campaigns raced to create online ads that appeared in Google search results for thesis queries. McDonnell’s ad linked to a page of his Web site with his response, while Deeds’ ad linked to the original story, and later a separate Web site about the thesis.
After several days, McDonnell’s campaign targeted women-oriented Web sites with banner ads showing his support of working women.
Finn said the online ads allowed for rapid response compared with TV ads, which took a couple of days to produce and broadcast.
McDonnell’s thesis ads had a higher “click-through” rate than other ads the campaign ran, Finn said. That refers to the percentage of people who click on an ad or link to find more information, which indicates viewer involvement.
McDonnell staffers constantly analyzed gauges such as the click-through rate. Then staffers tweaked which search terms to be associated with, the Web pages people clicked to, geographies, and other variables.
All four candidates for governor — McDonnell, Deeds and the Democrat’s primary rivals, Brian J. Moran and Terry McAuliffe — used such an ongoing ad strategy, according to Google’s head of political advertising, Peter Greenberger.
“Never before in a statewide race have we seen that happen,” he said. “We believe that one lesson from 2009 is that search advertising has gone from a ‘nice to have’ tactic to a ‘must do’ for all political campaigns.”
Not only did the campaigns reach people online who don’t watch TV, the campaigns found they were getting more bang for their advertising buck online, as people clicked through ads to the candidates’ sites to donate or join e-mail lists where they were asked to get involved.
“A relatively cheap investment on Google ads can more than pay for itself,” said Jared Leopold, press secretary for the Deeds campaign.
As an indicator that politicians are adopting the new technologies, the proportion of a campaign’s overall advertising budget for online ads has gone from less than 1 percent on average in the 2004 cycle to the 7.5 percent that the McDonnell campaign spent — an “incredible increase,” Greenberger said.
Finn said the McDonnell campaign raised more than $1.25 million in online donations, from 4,171 donors.
McDonnell used online ads to gather votes and support in a serious way, Wilcox said. About two months from Election Day, the campaign started targeting general audiences to attract new voters.
For instance, McDonnell’s campaign bought ads to accompany search results for “Mike Huckabee.” Anyone in Virginia searching for the name of the former governor of Arkansas and contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 could have seen ads saying “Huckabee agrees — McDonnell for Governor,” with a link to McDonnell’s site.
McDonnell also adopted a relatively new tactic that Deeds used in June’s Democratic primary — plastering his banner ad all over the Internet for people in targeted geographic areas — a tactic called a “network blast.”
This is the tactic that McDonnell employed on the eve of the election.
“Google ads are so valuable in how you can target specific geographies and demographics,” Finn said. “It’s similar to TV, you’re broadcasting an impression. At the end of an election, it’s important to do that.”
Said Wilcox of WebStrong, which ran Moran’s Web strategy in the Democratic primary: “McDonnell used online communications as part of a well-planned overall messaging strategy that he laid out in the beginning, executed, and that paid off in the end. Deeds was floundering in the dark.”
Ravi Singh, whose company, ElectionMall Technologies, has supplied software for about 1,200 political campaigns this year, said statewide campaigns will adapt the Internet strategies of the Virginia governor’s race for years to come.
“From A to Z, Virginia defined how to use every aspect of the technology,” he said. “It will set the standard for statewide candidates.”
Contact Chris I. Young at (804) 649-6754 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Basically a lot of campaign consultants said that Virginia’s governor’s race was the first time we saw every candidate use online advertising in an integrated, focused way. Politics in Virginia is huge and there’s a ton of voices out there, which you can see by the volume of political blogs, Facebook interactions with Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds’ fan pages, and money pumped into online ads.
Both candidates for governor used a Google network blast to saturate the web with their faces right before people headed to the polls, Deeds in the democratic primary and McDonnell in the general election.
So is that a winning strategy? Maybe, maybe not.
One consultant told me that when you’re ahead, you might as well spend a few tens of thousands of $$ to brand your guy online in a final push. I didn’t really get to this in the story but at least it’s a start.