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Clinton Needed More Search: Q&A with Google's Greenberger

BY Kate Kaye | Tuesday, June 10 2008

Google political ad man Peter Greenberger thinks Hillary Clinton's campaign was hampered by its failure to use search advertising consistently throughout the primary season. While he acknowledges the New York Senator's campaign deserves credit for experimenting with new media tools, he argues savvy search advertising contributed to the success of both Barack Obama's and John McCain's primary season wins by helping them build supporter lists. Through sponsored links in search results, the McCain and Obama camps have driven users seeking information on the candidates to their official Web sites to register for newsletters, volunteer or to donate money.

Of course, the search firm's manager for elections and issue advocacy has a clear incentive to tout Google as key to the presidential nominees' campaign strategies. However, the two candidates left standing are poised to spend more on search advertising -- and most likely online advertising in general -- than any political campaign in history. Greenberger offers a glimpse into how the victors have used Google so far, and how they might use it in the big race.

Q. What can you tell me about how Clinton, Obama and McCain have used Google thus far this election season?

A. I think the momentous thing about the 2008 election campaign is just about every presidential campaign used Google AdWords, on the right and the left. However some candidates used it a lot earlier than others... Obama started the strategy very early and stuck with it and was able to build an enormous list of supporters.

Clinton's campaign started a little later... They had experimented with it early on in the campaign season and then they ended up cutting it off the last two quarters of 2007... During that time the Obama and McCain campaigns were using AdWords.

Clinton's campaign re-launched their AdWords campaign when the primaries were already underway... They had already dug themselves into a huge hole in terms of how many small donors they could count on.

All along, the Obama campaign had been building this huge list and Clinton wasn't even in the game.

Q. When exactly did Clinton's campaign start back up with Google?

A. She jumped back in following the New Hampshire primary. As interest was surging, she re-launched her [search] campaign.

Q. Did her campaign continue using Google thereafter or were there any shifts in usage?

A. There was a little bit of stop and start until they realized the benefits.

The ability to build up that list of names was important earlier on in the process... You don't want to burn through that list. The Obama campaign and the McCain campaign both understood this... The Clinton campaign was in the position of having to go back to donors very soon after they signed up... In general you hope that you're not in the process of building [a list] and using it at the same time.

Q. Some of the search ads from the presidential campaigns have been geographically targeted, so it's somewhat difficult to have clear competitive intelligence regarding what the opponent is doing. Still, you'd assume Clinton's camp was aware Obama's campaign was running a lot of AdWords ads. What did you do to try to convince the Clinton campaign to do the same?

A. We tried everything, but basically as with any campaign with a finite amount of resources there were internal discussions about the best use of those resources... I believe it was to their detriment, and I think that their money would have been better spent on media that had a direct return [as opposed to TV buys].

Q. It's my understanding that the McCain campaign has been very dedicated to using search advertising throughout the election so far. Is that what you've seen?

A. Absolutely. The McCain campaign was the savviest among the Republican presidential primary campaigns. We think it's not a coincidence that the two savviest primary campaigns with Google are the winning ones.

Even in the darkest days of the [McCain] campaign... they never stopped spending on Google AdWords... There were times, corresponding to the political polls, when maybe interest waned in his campaign, but he was ready to capture interest.

Q. From the information ClickZ News has gathered from Nielsen Online and elsewhere, it looks as though the campaigns also have run a good amount of display advertising through Google's AdSense network. Is that true?

A. We did a lot of that. We saw the use of video and I would highlight the McCain campaign for being ahead of the curve on that... I think that you'll see a lot more of that in the general election... The campaigns understand that you can't reach the same mass audience on television that you could before.

Q. What can you tell me about how the presidential campaigns used geo-targeting, or about their keyword buying strategies?

A. Both of the remaining campaigns have had very aggressive keyword strategies.

One of the more interesting things I've seen was the attempt to expand the electorate... During the "Texas two-step" primary, the Obama campaign geo-targeted ads to users in the state of Texas. When they searched for voter information, they were shown an Obama ad... I think you'll see this strategy adopted in the swing states during the general election.

Q. Did Clinton target Google ads in a similar fashion?

A. They seemed to be more focused on fundraising... The priorities of a campaign have to relate to what the greatest needs are... The Obama campaign was raising money online, but they had the luxury to experiment... and now they go into the general [election] with some critical learnings.

Q. What can you tell me in terms of the split between display advertising run through Google AdSense and paid search placed through AdWords?

A. All of the campaigns have run or are running Google AdWords, and all of them, too, have shown ads on our partner network, and the investment is split between the two. I think you're seeing generally a greater balance of that going to search, but I see a greater amount going to our content network in the future... Now they're going after those harder-to-reach people.

Your first vote is always a lot cheaper than your last vote... The person that raises their hand looking for you [the person who searches online] is a much more cost-effective acquisition... Display, video and banners are going to reach the rest of the audience, so I think you'll see more display down the road.