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From YouTube to Facebook, New Digital Targeting Helps Romney Campaign Reach Voters

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, December 22 2011

Mitt Romney's preroll ad on a Bloomberg clip playing on YouTube in Iowa

As potential caucus goers and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire go about their lives this Christmas season, they're likely to see Mitt Romney appear in unexpected places.

If they watch on-demand content online, they're likely to see a 30-second spot for Romney on Hulu or YouTube in the days leading up to the contests in those states. Or if they own a mobile device, they might see an ad that asks them to volunteer, or to get engaged in some other way with the campaign.

It's all part of a wider ad targeting campaign that the Romney team has carefully planned over the year as it hunts for voters in every virtual nook and cranny in the emerging post-live television world, blanketing Iowa in targeted online ads that use just about every new trick in the Internet marketing playbook.

"We've made a very conscious decision to reach out to folks who might otherwise miss our message," said Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign's digital media director.

Moffatt is working with his old colleagues at the Republican digital strategy consulting firm Targeted Victory in Arlington, Va. and the digital advertising agency SAY Media to buy ad space and tailor the messages there to those audiences who've "cut the cord" with their cable companies, or who simply don't turn on the television anymore.

SAY Media promises media buyers that it can reach 165 million people a month on the web and on mobile devices who are not likely to be big watchers of live television. It reaches these people by conducting surveys of the audience, and working with audience measurement firm Quantcast to develop its model. It also only charges ad buyers if members of the audience engage with their ads.

Targeted Victory conducted a bi-partisan study about the television viewing habits of likely voters along with their Democratic counterparts Chong & Koster, political polling firms Public Opinion Strategies and SEA Polling & Strategic Design and SAY Media earlier this year. They found that about a third of likely voters don't watch live television, and that 45 percent say they watch "something else" other than live television as their primary form of video consumption. Worse news for campaign advertisers is that in the battleground state of Ohio, they found that nearly 40 percent of likely voters surveyed had not watched live television in the past week that they were surveyed.

Unsurprisingly, the group also found that most voters with digital video recorders skip ads.

The group acknowledges that the lion's share of the projected $3 billion in political ad spending in 2012 will still be in television, despite their findings. Already, in Des Moines, IA market alone, the campaigns have spent $1.4 million on television ads, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group and The Washington Post. The question is whether those ads are reaching the intended audience.

The Romney campaign is exploring how to target those ads more efficiently. Team Mitt's work largely involves online video, but search and zip-code targeting on Facebook, as well as buying keywords on Twitter and Google, are part of the mix too.

"The majority of all our digital advertising at this stage is video advertising, so it's highly-targeted rich media," says Moffatt. "We have all the reserve inventory in Iowa and New Hampshire for pre-roll for YouTube. We're the only one running it in those two states, and we're also up on Hulu."

He adds that the Romney campaign has bought all of the pre-roll ad space on longer-form content shown in Iowa on YouTube for the entire month going up to the January 3 caucuses.

The company is also working with the online audience targeting firm Lotame. The ads and their placement are based on a year's worth of work of doing surveys of the kinds of people the Romney campaign hopes to persuade to vote for him.

Targeted Victory has worked with Lotame in the past on the campaigns of Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Washington State's Dino Rossi, who lost his bid for a senate seat against Democratic incumbent Patti Murray in 2010.

"We have a kind of a holistic buying strategy," Moffatt says. "Everything we're doing on TV, we're aligning with online, and so we're either targeting individuals based upon what our modeling shows are 'off-the-gridders,' who are likely voters, but who are not watching live television as much."

Online or mobile video placement can also be used to engage voters.

Moffatt says that in addition to the ads that are designed to persuade voters, other ads are designed to mobilize those who already support the former governor of Massachusetts. So links to the Iowa GOP's page for caucus information and locations are embedded in some of Romney's videos. Other mobile ads, served up via Google's mobile advertising company AdMob, will contain pre-roll YouTube ads. Another set will feature buttons that connect voters directly to the campaign.

"If you're in a certain geolocation we think is important, and if you want to engage, there would be an ability for you to click-to-call within the ad unit," Moffatt explains. "You would call our volunteer location and then be connected with someone to get involved."

Moffatt says that the Romney campaign spends a minimum of 10 percent of its ad budget on its digital strategy, and most of that is spent on actionable video as he just described. But Facebook and Google play a role too.

"Intent marketing is obviously going to be your highest-return-on investment because someone has gone into Google and typed in a word, and they have an intent to take an action," he says.

Facebook's new zip code targeting feature is useful to mobilize people who have already indicated that they 'like' the campaign, he adds.

"We've found for crowd-building, Facebook is a very positive way of doing it. Those people are naturally built in, so if Mitt's going to be in a certain geolocation, we can turn those people out."

Mobile phones are another big tool in the toolbox of geo-targeting. Voters who've texted the campaign to be updated with Romney's whereabouts in New Hampshire are notified by text when the candidate is about to make an appearance at an event in or near their zip code (if they've provided it to the campaign.)

The Romney campaign isn't the only one that's trying to bridge the gap between television and the web. Texas' Rep. Ron Paul has been aggressively advertising on television with his hard-hitting ads against former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Those ads have run online and have been placed in conservative outlets online such as the political news blog as well.

Eric Frenchman, chief Internet strategist at Connell Donatelli & Campaign Solutions, says that he's actually surprised at how little he's heard about political campaigns buying ads on platforms like Hulu.

"I think GoogleTV and Hulu bridge the gap between what a traditional offline media buyer would be doing, and what an online media buyer would do, and I think in 2012, you’re going to see those lines blur," he says.

But perhaps that's because the campaigns have been flying under the radar.

Moffatt says that his team has kept its head down working on its infrastructure, which is designed to scale to accommodate rapid growth in support.

"I would never underestimate Ron Paul's supporters," he says when asked about the rival Paul campaign's success in packing Iowa events with supporters of the very age and demographic that Romney's campaign is also after. "But we'll see in two weeks."