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The Top 3 Trends in Political Advertising Online

2012 will be a watershed year for political advertising online. The Obama campaign and the DNC have already spent more than $21 million online, a number that can only be expected to multiply as we get closer to the general election.

This election season, as political advertising online has ballooned, three key trends have emerged: increased focus on online targeting, using online sentiment to determine messaging, and hyper-rapid response times.

Online Micro-Targeting

Though historically slow to adopt the sophisticated technologies considered commonplace by many online advertisers, political campaigns are quickly catching up this year. Largely, there has been a shift in the way campaigns think about media-buying. A focus on massive reach has been replaced with a focus on getting the right message in front of the right people.

Online, it’s particularly easy for advertisers to segment campaigns such that the right message is always getting in front of the right audience. Message segmenting can be accomplished via display ads targeted based on site context, audience or prior engagement with a candidate’s online presence.

Online voter file targeting, which relies on anonymized cookie pools to serve targeted display ads to voters, is merely the logical evolution of years of voter file targeting that previously relied upon direct mail. Both cheaper and more agile than direct mail, the Internet is the perfect medium to create additional touch points with the same voters.

AdWords is the New Focus Group

Besides its affordable targeting, the Internet’s biggest strength as an advertising medium is its agility. Campaigns can fundamentally change their messaging and go live with an entirely new campaign within a single day. And they needn’t rely on gut instincts, they can rely on actual data straight from their voters.

Instead of relying on pollsters to gather insight on public opinion, campaigns can use ad performance to gauge voter sentiment in real time.

One of the greatest (and now practically historical) examples of how to use online advertising to gauge vote sentiment comes from late 2010. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the RNC ran a $50 test on Google AdWords to measure the efficacy of various messages. Of all the variations tested, ‘Fire Nancy Pelosi’ received the most clicks by a landslide. This simple phrase became the cornerstone of a massive campaign, bringing the RNC $1.6 million in donations in only three days.

Rapid Response in Real-Time

The 24 hour news cycle has reached a new high (or low, depending on your perspective) now that campaigns can respond to anything in near real-time. We’ve seen Twitter emerge as a response tool for opponent’s gaffes, for the campaign’s own gaffes, or to a wide variety of newsworthy events.  As journalists, influencers and interested citizens all take the Twitter to debate, we can see a particular event begin trending within an hour, often only to be forgotten again when the next cycle begins.

Take, for example, the recent controversy surrounding Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s comments about Ann Romney’s role as a stay-at-home mom. Within hours, Twitter was abuzz with commentary from both sides of the aisle, and Ann Romney (likely at the request of the Romney campaign) was so moved as to create her own Twitter account to weigh in on the issue.


As we approach November, we’ll see these increased targeting, agility and rapid responsiveness play an increasing role in the ever-evolving art of campaigning online.

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