Colin Delany January 25, 2008

Late-Deciding Voters and Last-Minute Search Advertising

Cross-posted on techPresident

Political campaigns typically use search advertising primarily for long-term list-building, but with a big chunk of February 5th voters apparently still undecided, shouldn’t targeted search ads be an effective way to reach people who are still making up their minds?

Here’s why: if X percentage of primary voters in a given state haven’t picked a candidate three days out, you can bet that a good chunk of them are naturally going to turn to the internet for information to help make a decision. And since most online quests start at a search engine, search advertising would seem to be a natural way to get to those potential supporters directly and at the moment they’re thinking about voting. Geo-targeting, keyword-targeting and the fact that search ads are pay-per-click makes this strategy cost-attractive — you can concentrate resources on voters in particular states or metropolitan areas, and you only pay when you actually get a voter contact (i.e., when someone clicks).

I started thinking about this strategy based on a comment from my friend Riche Zamor on an e.politics article from a couple of days ago, in which he questioned the value of using search for get-out-the-vote efforts. I’d have to agree with him 100% on that — you gin up turnout with phone calls, emails, text messages and last-minute direct mail, not online ads. But in this case, I’m arguing for the use of search ads as a PERSUASIVE tool. Many of the people who click on the ads will never join a campaign’s email list, but if you can convince them to vote for your candidate or even just begin that process, your mission is accomplished. And since even a relatively large online ad buy would cost only a small fraction of what it takes to run TV ads in, say, Los Angeles, a campaign could experiment with last-minute search ads without taking significant resources away from more-traditional tools.

Landing page content would be key, since people will be looking for specific kinds of information and will get frustrated if they can’t find it easily — if the landing page is just a standard “join my list” splash page, you’re wasting their time and your money. When Zephyr Teachout looked at the Republican candidates’ sites from the point of view of an undecided voter a few weeks ago, she pointed out how few made it easy to find basic information about why someone SHOULD support the candidate. By contrast, a search ad landing page ought to make a clear and compelling case for the candidate, with state-specific information provided where possible. And if you also have find-your-polling-place features or instructions for day-of-election voter registration (where it’s allowed), you’ll also have a better chance of providing your potential supporter with something they need and leaving them with a positive impression.

In a way, search ads would also serve as the online equivalent of yard signs — a tiny bit of name-exposure right as people are thinking about how to vote. People notice ads even when they don’t click on them — for instance, studies have shown that having your paid ad on a search results page increases clicks on your links that show up in the organic search results. Display ads could play a similar role — another place undecided voters will be turning to is the websites of the major political news outlets, in their own states but also the Times, the Post, CNN, etc. — though I suspect that they’re likely to cost much more per actual voter contact than search ads.

Search outreach should also have a ripple effect beyond the individual voters who click on the ads, though I suspect that it’ll be tough to measure. People who are bothering to actively seek information about the candidates, even at the last minute, are obviously thinking about their vote and would seem to be more likely to be opinion leaders in their peer group. Most people make voting decisions based on the recommendations of family and friends, so every active information-seeker you can recruit may have an effect on other late-deciders they know.

Real search advertising gurus would have a ton of good ideas for keywords to advertise on, but here are some quick ideas to get the conversation started:

polling place
Hillary Clinton
John McCain
cast ballot
where to vote
primary election

Landing pages should of course relate to the specific search terms that link to them. For instance, an ad on the search phrase “California primary” should have very clear and straightforward information about when the primary is and how voting and voter registration work, while also making the case for the candidate.

Obviously I’m not talking about an online-only strategy, but with even wealthy presidential campaigns running out of cash, all candidates are having to think very carefully about how to target their outreach efforts on the undecided. Direct mail, targeted cable tv buys and niche radio ads are all good ways to concentrate resources on reaching particular voters with particular messages. Search advertising seems like a natural weapon to add to the last-minute outreach arsenal.


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