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Recalling the Online Ad Wars of 2008 (Book Excerpt)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, May 4 2009

If most media outlets covering the presidential campaigns had anything to say about it, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and other social media phenomena would get all the credit for making 2008 the most digital election ever. But that’s only part of the web story. Surely no campaign staffer worth his salt would deny the potential impact of a Barack Obama supporter posting a link on her Facebook page to the candidate’s site. However, the fact is many of the campaigns used a far more measurable online campaign tactic: paid online advertising.

As early as January 2007, candidates still in the exploratory stages had begun buying ad space on the Web. Granted, they spent little compared to what they allocated to television ads or even to Web site building and management. Still, Web ads enabled them to drive potential supporters to their sites in the hopes of getting them to sign up for e-mails, attend a house party, volunteer, or donate a few bucks. And through the use of contextual placements, online ads also were also useful in reinforcing campaign messages. Longtime friend of PdF and techPres, Kate Kaye, has a new book out, “Campaign ’08: A Turning Point for Digital Media,” that tells the story. It's a terrific guide to one of the least-covered but significant aspects of the campaign of 2008, the online ad wars--and no one covered this terrain more closely that Kate, as veterans of both the Obama and McCain campaigns attest. Anyone who is looking to use targeted advertising in their own political efforts online should get a copy. With her permission, we are posting two excerpts from the book.

By October of ‘07, a number of primary candidates’ campaigns were in on the ad act, as evinced in this excerpt:

Clinton’s own display ads were few and far between, but the McCain camp made sure she showed up in some anyway. A grinning, sunflower-adorned Hillary flashed the peace sign in one ad. "1 million for a Woodstock Museum? Not so groovy man," said the ad. It mirrored a McCain TV spot which alluded to Clinton's proposal to fund a museum in Woodstock, N.Y., commemorating the legendary drugged-out 1969 concert event. Other ads displayed the Vietnam veteran as a hard-as-nails foil to a hippie-fied Hillary.

That Hillary ad did pretty well, too. According to McCain ad man and prolific blogger Eric Frenchman, it was "one of the highest clicked ads for Senator McCain's campaign."

The ads were doing well enough for the McCain camp to keep using Clinton’s name and face to their advantage. They recognized Clinton’s ability to conjure conservative venom. "Is This The Future You Want?” asked an ad showing her face tottering to-and-fro inside a crystal ball. “Make Sure It Doesn't Happen!" Another ad displayed a giant newspaper headline that today can only remind political junkies of the Chicago Daily Tribune gaffe of 1948. This time, instead of “Dewey Defeats Truman” the ads declared, "McCain Beats Clinton, Read All About It!"

Yet another attack ad featured close-ups of Clinton and Obama. "Who do you trust to protect America?" they asked. Like many other McCain display ads, they made no reference to McCain aside from a tiny disclaimer.

The campaign also targeted GOP candidates Thompson, Romney, and Giuliani, using their own words of praise for McCain against them. "If I wasn't running I'd probably be supporting him for president,” went a Giuliani quote. “John McCain has shown the characteristics of leadership like no one else that I've ever seen,” was a Thompson line from back in '99. A Romney quote called McCain “a great man.” The ad quipped, “At least they agree on something. John McCain for President."

Meanwhile, Edwards and Obama were anything but confrontational. Obama ads encouraged voters to join his campaign and attend local appearances of the charismatic orator. Edwards ran a relatively small number of ads on MySpace, picturing the former 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate in front of a gigantic American flag. "Join the campaign to change America," read the ads. Yep, it seemed like everybody was flying the change flag at that point in the election cycle.

Not only were display and search ads relatively inexpensive; because online ad results are measurable, they allowed the campaigns to determine whether their dollars were well spent before voters went to the polls. What did the campaigns measure and why? “Campaign ’08” explains in the book’s “Measuring Success” chapter. Here’s an excerpt:

As the McCain campaign rubbed pennies together, the Obama campaign was rolling in a field of greenbacks. Did the Obama people even have to prove the value of their digital ad spending? From the looks of things they were running ads everywhere online. Were they even held to any standards?

Some worried. Web evangelists who had dedicated their careers to showing political campaigns the online light wondered: If the most prominent, most talked-about digital political campaign in history didn’t have the numbers to back it up, what would the naysayers think? They could easily point to the Obama campaign as one that did so much on the Web simply because they could afford to do anything and everything. Who says the Web ads or the text messaging really worked?

Measurement is a double-edged sword for digital marketers. Unlike any other medium – television, direct mail, print, radio, lawn signs – spending on digital media can be measured relatively precisely. There’s no telling how many people actually watched a television spot, much less paid attention to it.

Not so with Web ads. Because they’re all digital, a user’s interactions can be tracked based on whether or not he clicked or where he clicked within an ad. Advertisers can track the number of people who clicked an ad, how many submitted their e-mail address or donated on the campaign site, or how long they viewed a video placed in an ad unit.

The amount of money spent on a particular effort -- say a voter registration search ad campaign targeted to Pennsylvanians – can be measured against the number of actual voter registration forms filled out online. A dollar amount can be attached to each goal. If each voter registration is worth $3 to a campaign, and it cost them $0.75 to run the 1,000 impressions of the ad that drove five people to click through and register, the return on investment is positive. Of course, it’s even easier to measure the value of a fundraising effort. The ROI for an individual ad is the donation amount minus the ad cost. The Web team would look at the results of an ad campaign in aggregate to determine its overall value.

The McCain Web team was held to rigid standards. Because money was so tight, they had to prove the value of their ad spending day in and day out – and the statistics were readily available. Again, the measurability of online advertising is a blessing and a curse. Because value can be proved, it must be proved – especially when every cent spent is so closely monitored. Even years after running particular online ad campaigns, commercial advertisers don’t like to share specific results for fear of the competition exploiting them. For the same reason, neither the Obama nor the McCain campaign will lay their cards on the table for inspection. But all signs point to a very accountable online campaign effort by the Obama team. Talks with media firms that worked with the Obama team as well as even closer sources say they were extremely ROI-focused.

“They knew by the hour how much money their ads were making," said a media exec who worked closely with the Obama digital ad staff. “There were no slouches on the Obama team," he added. In fact, his observations of their data-driven decision-making and campaign measurement led the executive to call one top Obama digital ad staffer a “quant.”

The Obama campaign paid $22,000 to Dynamic Logic, a research firm that measures things like brand impact of digital advertising and cross-media ad effectiveness.

The Obama Web team had a specific goal set for every individual online effort – from geo-targeted Facebook ads to nationally aimed search ads. A main reason they invested in the Web in the first place, said one source close to the campaign, was because they could prove its worth. They wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t work. Indeed, when something didn’t work, it was cut. When something did, it might have gotten a bigger chunk of the budget the next month.