WASHINGTON, June 20 2012 - Celebrating the fifth presidential cycle that the internet has played a role in the political campaign process, political pundits, strategists and communications experts came together Tuesday morning to analyze the next phase of the internet on the campaign trail. After 2008 and President Obama’s revolutionary use of social media to take the oval office, the expert panelists at BroadbandBreakfast’s “The Internet Presidential Campaign 2012” believe internet campaign advertising will be the major web development of this year’s campaign cycle.
Alexis Simendinger, White House Correspondent for RealClearPolitics.com moderated the discussion which included Stephen Geer, Partner at OMP, Kate Kaye, Senior Editor at ClickZ, Ryan Meerstein, Senior Political Analyst & Director of Human Resources at Targeted Victory, Rob Saliterman, Senior Account Executive for Elections and issue Advocacy at Google and Jamie Smolski, Global Marketing Solutions, Elections and Issues at Facebook.
All the panelists seem to agree that this is the first election cycle where online political persuasion ads are beginning to play a key part in campaign strategy. Increasing functionality of targeted search and advertising delivery as well as Super PAC spending also seem to support this assertion.
Super PAC spending on persuasion advertising will make the persuasion advertising of 2010 and 2008 look tiny in comparison. “In the past most campaigns spent about 10% of their media budgets online, in this cycle it is going to be much more like 25% and it is going to be dramatic and very targeted specifically in swing states and certain districts,” noted Geer.
While most people seem to think that there is infinite space to advertise online, infinite number of websites and infinite number of videos to run pre roll in front of, Saliterman pointed out that with Google and particularly Youtube there is an incredible amount of demand for the quality inventory, especially in the swing states. He believes that while many campaigns still choose to spend on TV ads first, TV ad space is very limited and as the traditional media platforms sell out fast, more and more campaigns will invest online. Saliterman added that once the campaigns begin to realize the return on investment from these ads, they might become the first choice in future campaigns.
Democrats vs Republicans and Digital Media
Focusing on the upcoming presidential election, Simendinger asked the panelists whether they believed that “the internet is Obama’s home court,” and if not how were they evenly matched.
Meerstein who manages the digital media team for the Romney campaign acknowledged that Obama has a head start, he noted that at the end of a successful state by state primary campaign Romney’s entire staff numbered in the 80s which is about the same number as Obama’s digital media team. The most significant thing to look at is the engagement, said Meerstein, the percentage of supporters that engage with Romney’s Twitter and Facebook campaigns is greater than the presidents.
Kaye believes that the media spends too much time on how the Democrats are better situated with digital media. “McCain did not have the buy in and was not integrated the way Obama was, but that has changed…Romney’s campaign was the most invested online from the beginning of the primaries.” She applauded the fact that his campaign was the first on the Republican side to hire an in house digital director, and believes they are well set to compete with Obama.
Saliterman was not surprised that a candidate like Romney who comes from a business background and is very data driven, would realize the value in online advertising the same way the corporate world sees the value. He believes that Romney will move the ball forward in terms of how much focus is spent online to reach voters because they understand it is the most targeted and measurable form of paid advertising out there. “People like to focus on what the hot new trend is in digital, but what wins elections are the nuts and bolts, blocking and tackling and despite whatever advantages the Obama campaign might have…the Republicans will be able to compete with them when it comes to the nuts and bolts of online advertising.”
When it comes to Facebook, Smolski tracked back to Meerstein’s comment, "engagement is the key." Obama may have 25 million fans while Romney only has two, but what really matters is, who’s fans are spreading the message and sharing the content. Facebook is different now than it was in 2010 and different than it was 3 month ago, there are many changes that are happening in the area of political advertising.
When asked about the benefit or downside of incumbency, Geer, who worked for the Obama campaign in 2008 noted the difference in messaging back then where there were only two people who reviewed all of the emails that went out compared to his staff of about 30 now. Geer seemed to suggest that everything that goes out now has to go through a rigorous and perhaps less efficient vetting process and chain of command. He also noted that four years ago was very different because the primaries and the fight against Hillary lasted a lot longer than the general election itself.
Use of Technology to Drive Media Coverage
Simendinger channeled the conversation towards the campaigns and their use of technology and digital platforms to drive their media coverage.
“Campaigns strategically run flashy videos and advertisements to coax other media into writing a story about them or show the video on CNN” said Kaye. With web platforms and social media there are now new cheaper outlets to send these messages to audiences. If a video goes viral on the web, traditional media outlets will most likely comment on it.
Geer added, “there is only so much persuasion advertising you can purchase.” He acknowledge that why would a campaign spend money on running a 30 second TV spot when sending it to key supporters who can spread the message through social media can reach an even greater audience.
The issue with social media, as Simendinger pointed out, is that not everyone is online. “Which are the demographics that are being missed?”
The general understanding from the panelists seems to be that at this point and time, a significant part of the media budgets are still covering traditional media. Geer said the real questions to ask is not just who is being missed in terms fo the reach of advertising, but who is being reached but not participating. He noted that latinos in particular are over represented in social media but underrepresented in political participation.
“How about who are we missing on the traditional side by using 90% of the budget,” added Meerstein. Apparently 30% of the population did not watch live TV last week.
Meerstein admitted that through the primaries mobile was a very small percentage of the digital buy, but that the numbers will pick up throughout the summer. In terms of measuring the effectiveness of money spent on mobile advertising, he said it would be the same as any other platform, look at the conversion rate.
Both Meerstein and Smolski acknowledged that even though Facebook’s mobile offerings are different (through newsfeed and sponsored stories, they believe the click through rates reach upwards of 15% which is very valuable for the campaigns.
Saliterman finds value in mobile advertising because certain communities like Hispanic voters have a much higher mobile adoption rate and are easier to reach through mobile platforms. “Google’s mobile platforms are different than Facebook, you cannot pay to influence organic search results within Google.”
Search results will be the same on mobile platforms, but you can still have a search ad at the top of your results, explained Saliterman. He gave an example of the caucuses that ran a mobile Ad with the campaign headquarters’ telephone number so that supporters can connect with the campaign in order to find information about voting or volunteering. He noted that the example was most important because of what it got supporters to do offline; those actions translate to what is needed the most come election day.
Google is also seeing campaigns use their mobile displays with contextual advertising to appear on top of news articles. Sometimes the mobile ads are more visible than the regular online ads. Finally Google lets campaigns advertise on various applications, some of which have geo targeting capabilities which will have a very important place in this election
Reach and Targeting and Data Mining
Panelist agree that targeting specific demographics online whether through different platforms or online advertising is becoming increasingly popular with campaigns, however, it seems like going to granular and micro targeting may be too time consuming and not really worth the return on investment. Kaye believes it is important for campaigns to try different versions of messaging so they can gather the information and learn for next time, “yes the capability is there to reach a small niche, but it comes down to time.”
“When it comes to fundraising, the more generalized message works well,” Geer added, “it differs is when you are getting people to volunteer their time, go out and canvas.” Segmentation is important when it comes to what is going to tip the volunteer to actually come out and help.
“Search advertising is the most targeted way to reach people and then mobilize them,” says Saliterman. This makes sense, if someone searches online about volunteering for Romney they should be led to an ad that allows them to sign up right away. This is a very efficient use of campaign dollars because campaigns only pay for the ad when someone clicks on it. “If someone is searching for information about a candidate, they are trying to have a conversation…it then makes sense for the campaign to be the one on the other end of that conversation.”
In the world of online fundraising, email is still the number one way to interact with supporters. Over 90% of all donations come from email. Geer noted that social media platforms are starting to experiment with quick donate options on different platforms.
Kaye recently posted an article about a new company called Chirpify that will allow users to donate through Twitter. She believes that the ability to broadcast your donation or purchase via Twitter will encourage others to do the same.
Another big trend in fundraising is the online sale of campaign merchandise incentives, Kaye thinks the Obama campaign has really capitalized on the ability to raise funds around the designer merchandise.
Some final thoughts from the panelists, led to a debate about whether this will be the last campaign season that will focus on television advertising. Saliterman thinks Americans are going to cut the cord and TV Ad spending will plummet dramatically. Kaye on the other hand believes the shift will lead to cross platform targeting where data will be more connected.
Geer left the audience with a final thought. He said that digital cannot re-create history. The unique circumstances of the 2008 election, including, the digital campaign, the intense drawn out primary, and the historical significance, lead to a perfect storm of voter participation. He doubts that voter participation will be the same this time around.