Updated January, 2011
If I had to pick a most-neglected aspect of internet politics, it would be online advertising — until recently. In particular, electoral campaigns used to spend relatively little money advertising to web audiences, particularly compared to the huge amounts they raised online. While it’s typical for commercial marketing campaigns to spend 15% or 20% of their budgets online, for political campaigns the comparable range before 2010 would have been 3% to 5%. This seems particularly strange considering the targetability of online advertising (the ‘net naturally breaks down into demographic and interest-based niches) as well as its trackability. During the 2010 election cycle, this situation finally started to change, with campaigns turning to Google and Facebook ads in particular.
One factor behind this evolution is that fact that the internet’s main rivals as communications channels (general-audience broadcast advertising, phonebanking/robocalls and direct mail) are all gradually losing effectiveness as a result of a variety of factors including increased competition for viewer attention, cable channel proliferation, cell phone ubiquity, and overall junk-mail resistance. But until now, a combination of factors seem to have slowed down the acceptance of online advertising in the campaign world.
First, online advertising is often hard to do, particularly if you’re going beyond basic Google, Facebook and blog ads. Running display ads (static banners or more complex Flash/video/interactive pieces) is much more difficult than it should be, in part because different publications can have vastly different standards (I can remember one time doing three different versions each of four online ads, one set for the NY Times site, one set for Washington Post properties and one at standard 468×60 banner size for National Journal) and in part because ads can’t be ordered from a single central broker (a situation that AOL’s Advertising.com for one is trying to change). Television and print ads, by contrast, are done in standard formats and sizes and ad agencies can usually purchase space in many outlets at once.
And therein lies the second part of the problem — professional campaign consultants in the U.S. have generally taken a cut of their clients’ TV spending as a commission for placing their ads, and the industry hasn’t worked out a similarly profitable business model for online political advertising. Pressure is coming, though — the 2008 and 2010 campaigns broke down a lot of barriers, and consultants are also being pushed more often into lump-sum channel-neutral contracts that don’t discriminate as much against the ‘net.
Basic Types of Online Advertising
Regardless of whether they’re used to elect a candidate or promote an issue, online ads today break down into a few basic categories.
Display ads are the descendents of the banner ads that sprang up everywhere during the first dot-com boom, but the family has now expanded to include sophisticated video pieces, Flash animations, database interactions and “floating” pop-overs. Display ads are also in no way new to political advocacy, since I can remember the original incarnation of Epolitics.com making money (through a political ad network) from Lockheed-Martin ads for the F-22 during a defense funding fight in the late ’90s. As mentioned above, display ads often have to be tailored to the particular requirements of a given website or publisher, particularly if they include higher-end features.
Also depending on the publisher, display ads can be targeted at particular site users, particularly on sites like web portals and social networks as well as newspapers and others that collect financial, demographic and usage data on their readers. An advertiser on Washington Post web properties, for instance, can aim ads at employees of particular federal agencies, showing them only to readers coming from the selected .gov domain(s). Of course, advertisers can target by interest as well as by demographics, running ads only on special-interest sites or on special-interest sections of mass-audience and news sites.
We should note right away the obvious application of databases to the question of online targeting, something covered in more detail in the chapter on political databases. Also note that some forms of offline political communications also benefit from similar kinds of targeting, since the explosion of cable channels naturally encourages targeting by interest — “cable” channels delivered by actual cable rather than by satellite are also often geotargetable by zip code or neighborhood. Radio also breaks down by region and by demographic, and direct mail is a well-known a haven for database nerds who dream of slicing and dicing consumer data (more in the chapter on Political Databases).
Contextual (Google) Ads
Another common online advertising channel deploys text ads on web pages based on the content of those pages. Google Ads are the classic example, with ads being served based on each unique search query, but Google now also sells text ads on thousands of sites across the web, and similar ad networks have sprung up as well. Contextual ads have proven to be very effective for both commercial and political advertisers, with easy and obvious targeting based on a variety of factors including keyword and reader location. Most also feature easy testing of alternative ad message/keyword combinations and the ability to change ads and ad runs mid-stream. Nonprofits can apply for Google Grants to receive free Google Ads, which a number of groups have used to build their supporter and donor lists. In practice, Google Ads have turned out to have an excellent Return On Investment when used to build fundraising lists.
To get the most out of contextual ads, testing and tracking are usually vital. Since ads on a particular page are arranged and emphasized based on the amount each advertiser has “bid” to purchase those keywords, a campaign may be able to reach more people for the same amount of money by advertising on more-specific queries. For instance, advertising on the word “outdoors” is likely to be expensive, since lots of different retailers, outfitters and advocacy groups will be competing for it. Advertising on “alternative fuel biodiesel,” on the other hand, may be much cheaper, and its superior targeting may also yield better results per-ad-viewed. Smart advertisers will test many different keyword/ad combinations to find the best and most cost-effective results.
Two other considerations about Google and other contextually targeted ad systems: first, if you target well, they’ll reach people at the moment when they’re potentially interested in your subject, since they’re either searching for it or they’re on a page that’s somehow related. Second, Google ads have a secondary branding effect, since they put your message in front of web searchers and readers regardless of whether they actually click on them. Some research has even shown that it’s beneficial to have a Google Ad show up on a page that also has your site in the organic Google search results — if a page contains both your ad and your link in the Google search results, more people click on your link, as if the ad somehow delivered extra visibility or credibility.
Facebook has significantly expanded the online advertising playing field over the past couple of years, primarily because ads on the social network can be targeted at people based on the interests they’ve listed in their Facebook profiles and on their demographic characteristics (“men aged 25-34 who like football” would be an easily targetable group, for instance). Unfortunately for our purposes, Facebook constantly changes its features and offerings, making it difficult to write about definitively! Websites like Mashable, AllFacebook and InsideFacebook track these changes closely, making them essential resources for people running social ad campaigns.
Though the specifics may change in the future, we CAN talk about some basics. First, Facebook ads are easy to buy — anyone with a Facebook profile and a credit card can set up a campaign. Second, the creative elements are equally simple, with a small image and a few words of text, along with a “Like” button and a link to the appropriate landing page (ads can point to a Facebook page or to an outside website). Finally, up to this point at least, Facebook ads have been relatively cost-effective, with the price-per-click sometimes as low as a few tens of cents. Note that the cost is highly variable, and that at least for now, Facebook’s price structure rewards success: the higher the rate at which a particular ad run is clicked, the lower the cost moves over time. As a result, Facebook effectively rewards experimentation, and as with Google ads, Facebook advertisers frequently test many different combinations of creative elements and targeting to find the final versions on which to concentrate resources.
One interesting trend for 2010 and beyond is the steady growth of opportunities to place advertising on web video clips. Many YouTube clips now have a text ad overlay, for example, but perhaps the real opportunity lies in “pre-roll” ads on the internet versions of tv shows. Sites like Hulu.com, for instance, stream thousands of programs to people across the country, and electoral/candidate campaigns in particular have begun placing web versions of their tv commercials at the beginning of web clips. Other opportunities exist on sites for networks or individual shows (on episodes hosted on the Daily Show’s website, for instance), and it’s likely that pre-roll video will only increase in popularity. For one thing, it’s close enough to traditional television advertising that political consultants can wrap their heads around it!
Another ad channel used in the political world involves specialized advertising on blogs, either through the Blogads.com site or through other blog advertising networks. These ads are naturally targeted based on each blog’s particular niche, and ads on specialized sites such as local or regional political blogs frequently reach very influential audiences at a low relative cost. For more, see the chapter on Blogs and Blogger Relations, and also note that very large sites like HuffingtonPost sell advertising directly, just like WashingtonPost.com and NYTimes.com.
One new development in the 2010 election cycle was the first significant use of mobile advertising, particularly ads on the cell phone-optimized versions on websites and search engines. Because of the GPS features built into modern “smart” phones, mobile ads can be geo-targeted as well as aimed at people based on their search queries. Congressmember Michelle Bachmann reportedly bought ads aimed at people at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair, for instance, and other candidates attempted to reach people finding their polling places or even researching candidates while standing in line to vote. Mobile advertising is still very much a niche application, though that situation may change if cell phones start to dominate Americans’ internet usage as they do in some other countries.
Targeted vs. Blanket Advertising
We’ve talked a lot about targeting online advertising, but why not simply push out lots of ads to popular but non-targeted and non-political sites? Absolutely, why not? Some campaigns and consultants have gotten quite good results from bulk appeals on mainstream consumer and media sites. Shotgunning cheap ads out into the aether often fails, though — ads inexpensive enough to buy and deliver in massive amounts are also more likely to be bland enough to get lost in the online clutter.
One final consideration — the ad itself is only the first part of the battle, since once someone clicks on your link, what happens next? Ideally, they’d jump to a highly targeted landing page that is conceptually and/or visually linked to the particular ad that they clicked on, and that also clearly steers them in the direction you want. For instance, political campaigns frequently push people to volunteer sign-up or donations pages, while advocacy groups will often promote email-your-Congressmember campaigns and similar political actions. In the 2008 and 2010 cycles, we’ve seen landing pages deliver video messages, help people find their polling places, promote house parties and even encourage donations to outside causes like disaster relief.