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In Online Political Ads, Facebook Is Catching Up to Google

BY Nick Judd | Monday, May 24 2010

Facebook's share of online political advertising dollars is quickly growing to rival Google's, online political consultants say.

The assertion is backed by my analysis of recently released data from the Federal Elections Commission, which show that the ratio of dollars spent directly on Google advertising to those spent on Facebook advertising could be roughly three to two — even though Google has been around as a political advertising medium for nearly twice as long. The data is only on do-it-yourselfers, omits the spending from the most recent round of primaries, and also does not include the millions of dollars that have already been spent on online ads that were bought this year through consultants, but those same consultants say that the data is in line with their own observations.

“This cycle, we don't have a major Republican candidate who isn't asking about Facebook or isn't doing it,” said Peter Pasi, the executive vice president of Republican online consulting firm Emotive LLC.

He said that Facebook seemed to him to be catching up to Google in terms of outreach to political consultants, and that Facebook has made a major effort to reach out to political consultants in this election cycle.

Josh Ross, a partner at Trilogy Interactive — the three-headed hydra formed last year when Blackrock Associates, Mayfield Strategy and Articulated Man merged together — had a similar observation.

“On average, we spend more on Google than we do on Facebook, but that gap is narrowing every day,” he said, cautioning that the generalization was not necessarily true of all his clients. (UPDATE: To be clear, Trilogy's political clients are all on the left, where Emotive's are all on the right.)

It's early yet in the campaign cycle. We're not even all the way through primary season, and most money is usually spent in the run-up to the general election, so the dollars on the table already are just a small proportion of what will be spent by the end of the year. But by my tally, House Democratic candidates who buy their ads direct have placed 73 percent of their advertising dollars — about $18,000 — with Facebook. House Republican candidates placed 43 percent of their direct-spent advertising dollars — about $38,000 — by comparison. In contrast, Democrats running for Senate who buy their online ads direct spent nearly all of their money on Google advertising, while Republicans running for Senate placed 66 percent of their direct-buy dollars with Facebook. So far — among expenditures that I could track, which, again, is just a sliver of the millions already spent — Democrats have directly paid $140,400 to Google and Facebook so far, and Republicans have directly paid about $230,000.

This could be explained by a function of what each service is best for.

Andrew Bleeker, director of new media at AKPD, pointed out that Facebook's ad targeting and Google's ad targeting are good at different things.

Facebook is built around showing ads to people with certain qualities: All the Democrats in Michigan, for example, or everyone who says they live in Brooklyn and are fans of Barack Obama. Google's search ad targeting is primarily for placing ads next to keyword search results, so it's best for finding people who are looking for something specific. One network is for reaching people who are looking for you, and the other network is for looking for people to reach.

Whatever the reason, the gap is narrowing.

“Google was by far the biggest recipient of online cash in 2008,” Bleeker said. “Now, it's not nearly as dominant online.”

For his part, asked why that was, Bleeker suggested two reasons: One, the country is less interested in electoral politics this year than it was in 2008, and two, there's no single national narrative driving news online. No single widely-used search term makes it harder to get more exposure for ads.

Todd Herman, the Republican National Committee's new media director, cautioned against confusing money spent with the level of return on investment.

However, he said, both Facebook and Google were great territory for the RNC when it launched a “Fire Nancy Pelosi” moneybomb.

“Our ROI we experienced on that was truly shocking in our favor,” Herman said.

Based on an analysis of all the spending by House and Senate campaigns on items they describe — in an open-ended description field for each transaction — in a way that uses the words “web,” “internet ad,” “online,” “facebook” or “google,” Republicans are also outspending Democrats so far by a ratio of nearly two to one. Again, these numbers omit transactions that were not labeled or were not labeled in that way but went towards the same things, and it's easy to be imprecise with FEC data generally because disclosure is so complicated. With these limitations, I could identify about $4.2 million in spending by Democrats on online advertising and about $7.47 million by Republicans. Remember it's still early, and there's no way I could capture the entirety of online ad spending in my database query.

That said, the numbers support findings ClickZ's Kate Kaye, a friend of ours, reached in April, based on interviews with media buyers and campaign consultants.

“There is a false perception that Democrats are doing better online and that is simply not the case,” Michael Bassik, a techPresident contributor and senior vice president for digital at Global Strategy Group, told me Thursday.

These numbers will all change dramatically as campaigns continue; most ad spending happens much closer to the election. If you want to pick through the same data I was using, you can find it here.