How Targeted Online Ads Helped Sink Lou Dobbs at CNN

Be sure to catch this article from the February issue of Politics Magazine, particularly if you’re looking for examples of how even a relatively small online ad buy can reverberate across the media landscape. Late last year, longtime CNN host Lou Dobbs resigned due to pressure from a coalition of organizations, including media watchdogs and groups representing Latinos and immigrants. Lacking a huge budget, the organizers used a strategy planned to leverage their limited money into as much news coverage as possible. According to Josh Koster and Tyler Davis, online advertising gurus working with the coalition and the authors of the Politics Mag piece:

We would make an amazing ad to drive donations, yet too controversial for CNN to accept. If the campaign raising enough money to air the ad during “Latino in America” wasn’t enough to generate press, then the placing, the inevitable rejection and subsequent runs on other networks would. All the while, MediaMatters and would run their own petition to drop Lou Dobbs, thus building a narrative that appreciated the commitment of the coalition.

But to keep the campaign from flashing in the pan, Josh and company planned to make sure that political journalists and CNN employees in particular couldn’t avoid it. The tool? Targeted online ads:

We needed to gain and keep the press’s attention, so we deployed digital paid media to target media employees specifically. The Facebook feature “workplace targeting” was our primary weapon. We targeted all CNN/AOL-Time Warner employees with 500 points per day (the Facebook max). We ran dozens of different ads, testing message hooks from “Why did you let Lou Dobbs broadcast from a hate rally?” to “Why is CNN profiting off racism?” We even called out CNN’s on-air talent by name: “Hey Soledad O’Brian, why don’t you ask Lou Dobbs what it’s like to be Latino in America,” to ensure the CNN staff was sending screenshots between departments. We also workplace targeted the staff of the 25 biggest political and national news outlets in the country.

To those CNN employees, it must have seemed like we were making massive ad buys when, in fact, what we did cost us about $1,750. In a matter of days, about 900 mainstream media employees (one in four from CNN) had seen the TV spot and knew what we were up to.

The majority of the Facebook budget was spent running the ads to progressives and Latinos with a hard fundraising ask. (Meanwhile, Blue State Digital ran similar Google Ads.) Not only were we delivering about 500,000 ad impressions per day, but we were also raising money from our clicks. By the end, the ads were paying for themselves, which allowed us to spend much of this budget again on TV.

Within 24 hours, we also launched banner ads that paired the best performing imagery, hook and call-to-action from the Facebook ads on political blogs. We understood that blogs tend to break political news fi rst and reporters read them compulsively. About $10,000 was enough to buy the entire available liberal blog inventory in both Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as well as all of the major Latino political blogs nationwide for over a week. More importantly, because bloggers approve the ads that run on their sites, these ads ensured sympathetic bloggers knew the message right away. This made the client’s aggressive blog outreach much easier.

We also leaked the story of the digital buy to ClickZ — one of the most well-read digital advertising publications. We choose them because an editor named Kate Kaye is the foremost journalist covering political digital ads, and they are exceedingly well yndicated and search engine optimized. (Anything that they post triggers dozens ofGoogle Alerts.) This post led to a post by MediaBistro — the insider rag for journalists — and the story exploded from there.

Soon, we were the top return for Google, Google News and Google Blog Search for the phrase “Lou Dobbs.”

Not long thereafter, Dobbs was history at CNN. The lessons from this second example of clever Facebook ad targeting we’ve seen this week? First, integration is key — these ads weren’t floating out in a vaccuum but were part of an overall communications strategy that included the proposed television ad, online petitions and direct outreach to journalists and the outlets they read. Second, the size of the audience you reach online matters a lot less than reaching the RIGHT audience, in this case not just reporters but also bloggers and activists who could help spread the word and keep the pressure on CNN.

Finally, careful targeting can make your campaign seem omnipresent and a far more potent force than it might actually be — on the internet, even a tiny dog can bare some big teeth. And in this case, put a big bite on a powerful opponent and sent him scurrying home, tail between his legs.


Written by
Colin Delany
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