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Primary Season Signals Adoption of Online Ads by Political Campaigns

BY Kate Kaye | Monday, February 25 2008

Media coverage of 2008 presidential campaigning on the Web has been dominated by talk of social networking, blogs, viral video, and other tough-to-track social media phenomena. No campaign staffer worth his salt would deny the potential impact of an Obama supporter posting a link on her MySpace page to the candidate's site. However, the fact is many of the campaigns have used a far more measurable online campaign method: paid display advertising.

It is clear that political candidate campaigns are far behind commercial advertisers when it comes to adopting online advertising and devoting dollars to it. But things are changing and the 2007 primary season was proof. As early on as January '07, candidates still in the exploratory stage had begun buying ad space on the Web. Granted, they spent little compared to what they allocated to broadcast ads, or even Web site building and management. Still, Web ads enabled them to drive potential supporters to those sites in the hopes of getting them to sign up for e-mails or to attend a house party, or to donate a few bucks.

Not only are those ads relatively inexpensive; they've allowed often cash-strapped campaigns to determine whether their dollars were well spent, before voters went to the polls.

Candidates Running Display Ads between January and December 16, 2007

Candidate Campaign

Number of Impressions

Romney for President
103.8 million

John McCain 2008
94.6 million

Obama for America

75.3 million

Tom Tancredo For President
1.6 million

Hillary Clinton for President
1.1 million

Friends of Fred Thompson


John Edwards for President

Huckabee for President

Source: Nielsen Online, AdRelevance, 2007

Romney, McCain and Obama Dominate Display Ads in '07
As presidential candidates bounced around the polls in the months leading to the impending Iowa caucuses, Republicans Mitt Romney and John McCain remained securely on top according to one measure: online display advertising. Combined, the two campaigns ran over 70 percent of the online display ads purchased by the candidates in 2007, according to data from Nielsen Online AdRelevance. Democratic Senator Barack Obama also ran a large number of Web ads compared to fellow contenders -- more than a quarter of all presidential campaign ads between January and December. And far more than any other Web site, Yahoo cashed in.

In December '07 and January '08, Democratic contender Bill Richardson came on the scene with a series of anti-Iraq War ads, but his campaign placed a relatively small number of ads by the time he ducked out of the race. The rest of the candidates also merely dabbled in display advertising, or image-based online ads. Ads for Democrats Richardson, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, along with Republicans Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson accounted for the remaining one percent of presidential candidate display ads tracked by AdRelevance last year.

Since then, however, Obama has broken away from the pack. Indeed, Web ads from his campaign may have contributed to the candidate's record month of online-powered fundraising in January. Obama's camp placed more than 70 million display ads online last month, up from about 10 million ad impressions in December. The majority of the January ads drove supporters to visit the Senator's official site to "Help Elect Barack Obama President of the United States."

Obama's hefty display ad run topped the number of ad impressions from all the presidential campaigns in October and November -- 65 million in each month, as tracked by AdRelevance.

Last year's most prolific display advertiser, Romney for President, also pushed fundraising goals in some of the 40 million ads placed by the campaign in January. Republican frontrunner McCain's campaign ran less than half the number of online ad impressions in January that Romney's campaign did, around 19 million. While Romney focused on family values, traditional marriage and immigration in his issue-based ads, McCain's camp stuck with familiar themes such as pork-barrel spending, courage and conservatism.

Where Campaigns Bought Ads
Despite all the hype about social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, the lion's share of presidential campaign ads in 2007 ran on Yahoo. Nearly 32 percent of candidate display ads were placed on Yahoo Movies, Sports, Mail and other sections. MSN grabbed about 11 percent, Excite about 6 percent, and AOL about 4 percent of ad buys. The candidates continued this trend in January 2008, placing the majority of their display ads on Yahoo.

Although all the campaigns ran the bulk of their ads on those portals and larger sites including, The New York Times, MSNBC, Newsmax and, online ad network buys helped push political ad dollars out to niche content or long tail sites. By purchasing ads through networks such as and Google's AdSense network, the three top display ad spenders, Romney, McCain and Obama, had ads show up in unlikely Web nooks and crannies such as, GoComics, Top Secret Recipes, and CNET, sites their target audiences were likely to visit.

Buying through an ad network proved risky for Mitt Romney. His campaign made headlines for inadvertently running thousands of ad impressions on and other gay lifestyle sites, which weren't exactly in sync with some of the candidate's conservative stances. Despite chalking up the mishap to ad network problems, the campaign continued buying ads through networks. "We're primarily very focused on geo-targeting," Romney for President's e-strategy director Mindy Finn told ClickZ News in January 2008. "We want to own, so to speak, the inventory for a certain state." Ad networks allowed the campaign to serve ads on multiple Web sites to people in early primary and caucus states including South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida.

Earlier in the primary season, the campaign also purchased ads directly through sites such as, MSN Money, and newspaper sites in early primary states based on data about where Republicans spend time online.

As the campaigns refined their strategies for targeting voters in specific cities and states, more and more ads were seen on local sites. Obama ran ads on newspaper and TV sites in Seattle, Detroit, Orlando, San Diego, Houston, Akron, and New Orleans. McCain bought on sites in San Diego, Colorado Springs, Seattle, and New York. Romney ads showed up on sites aimed at voters in San Francisco, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Chicago, and Raleigh-Durham.

In January, all four presidential candidate advertisers -- McCain, Obama, Richardson, and Romney -- also bought ads on local newspaper or TV sites. Richardson's camp continued its focus on Iowa by placing ads on Romney's ads showed up on local news sites in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Raleigh/Durham, and Tampa. McCain's camp also ran ads on Florida sites in addition to sites based in Detroit, Boston and South Carolina.

Examples of Presidential Campaign Display Ad Copy

Ad Copy

Call to Action

Hillary Clinton
Hillary would love a word with you. Iraq. Healthcare. Energy. Katrina. Children. Jobs. America.
Join the Conversation

John Edwards

Join the campaign to change America.
Join Senator John Edwards at

John McCain
Courageous Service Experienced Leadership Bold Solutions, Watch Courageous Service Video
Play Video

Barack Obama
Meet Barack Obama. Sign Up for Invitations to Campaign Events

Join Us

Bill Richardson
Continue war in Iraq until 2013? 2013! What the @$#!? The cost of war is already too high., DEATHS by 2013 6,940, CASUALTIES by 2013 103,370, DOLLARS in millions by 2013 866,000
no call to action

Mitt Romney
Tune in to Victory. Help Put Mitt Over the Top. $1,000,000 Media Victory Fund. Be Part of Mitt's TV Campaign.
Contribute. Experience. Vision. Values.

Tom Tancredo
Tom Tancredo: Defeat Amnesty Politicians.
Breaking News

Fred Thompson
Mitt Romney "I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate." Rudy Giuliani "I'm pro-choice. I'm pro-gay rights." Fred Thompson "I was a proud conservative yesterday, I remain one today, and will be one tomorrow" Support the Real Conservative. Fred 08 Security. Unity. Prosperity.font>

Source: Nielsen Online, AdRelevance, 2008

Presidential Campaigns Show Maturity
Presidential campaigns may not be spending tons on Web ads, but they began showing a greater willingness to experiment with innovative ad creative and messaging in December as the Iowa caucuses loomed.

Obama's and Richardson's camps appeared to be the first presidential campaigns to include geographically relevant messaging in ads aimed at Iowa voters. "The war in Iraq has cost Iowans $3.5 billion," proclaimed one Richardson ad, which linked to Ads for Obama not only were targeted specifically to Web users in Iowa, they included Iowa caucus-related messages. One promoted a Precinct Finder, Caucus FAQ, Student Center and Local Obama Events.

Along with issue-based ads focused on healthcare for veterans, Richardson's campaign stressed his outraged anti-war stance. "Continue war in Iraq until 2013? 2013! What the @$#!?" exclaimed the ad, which concluded, "The cost of war is already too high." The ads prompted users to click-through and visit, a micro-site urging visitors to sign a petition.

McCain ads used pork barrel spending as an issue hook to entice supporters to sign a petition. "Three million of your tax dollars to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that's a paternity issue or a criminal issue," the humorous ads quipped. Such ads served a dual purpose of helping campaigns gather contact information of potential volunteers and supporters, in addition to being used for persuasion.

Romney's campaign used Web ads to drive donors to give towards particular fundraising goals. One effort pushed "Project 44," a mission to collect $44 from donors to support his run to be the 44th President. However, other ads were more persuasion-oriented, promoting the former Massachusetts Governor's "clear vision of change for America." The ads told voters, "He did it in business, the Olympics, and in Massachusetts and He can do it in Washington."

Another McCain display ad featured embedded video of the Senator in his younger years serving in Vietnam, a Web video shown online and in TV spots by the campaign for months. Romney also placed video-enabled display ads on the Web, and was the first candidate to run video overlay ads.

Spending Measures Lack Clarity
Three reports predicting online political ad revenues in 2008 vary widely, yet all agree current low spending on Web ads will continue growing.

A January Lehman Brothers report takes the most bullish approach, forecasting political advertisers could spend over $110 million on Web advertising in 2008. Meanwhile, a December report from PQ Media expects just $73 million will go towards the Web. Enter Borrell Associates with its conservative estimate of online political ad dollars. Though the research firm anticipates $4.8 billion will be spent in total on political advertising in '08 -- the highest total cross-media revenue forecast of the three reports -- it believes just $20 million in political ad money will go to the Web. One reason for Borrell's low figure is the recognition that campaigns are taking advantage of as much free online media as possible, by creating free social network profiles, posting video to YouTube, and taking advantage of earned media from blogs and news sites.

The research firms also seem to disagree on what segments of online advertising will reap the rewards from political advertisers. Borrell believes almost half of online political ad budgets will be spent on paid search ads with the other half going to standard display ads and streaming audio and video.

PQ Media, however, pegs e-mail spending at about 75 percent of all online political ad dollars, most likely taking into account things like e-mail writing staff or list purchases. It's even less clear what the Lehman Brothers' $110 million number is based on; although the firm did suggest its estimate includes spending on online initiatives such as resources dedicated to social media efforts.

Until there is a cohesive system for measuring all online ad spending by political campaigns, and until standards for what should be measured are established, we can expect political ad spending estimates to vary broadly.

Metrics That Matter

Perhaps more important for political campaigns is the ability to measure the impact of their online display advertising. Although political advertisers have yet to determine the most appropriate ways to measure online ad success, experimentation continued in 2007. The Romney campaign, for instance, measured ad success by the number of volunteer signups gathered, and the value of contributions collected as a result of ad click-throughs. It also devised a formula based on how many potential Iowa caucus voters, for instance, were reached per dollar spent.

The fact is most display ads are used by political advertisers to gather signups and donations, in part because there is a direct correlation between dollars spent on Web ads and names or funds collected.

When political advertisers have a clearer sense of how their online campaigns affect voter attitudes, get-out-the-vote efforts, and actual results at the polls, they may be more willing to pull ad dollars from television, radio, and direct mail towards online display advertising or other forms of Web advertising and marketing.

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