This is the biggest year yet for political Internet ad buys, in Connecticut and nationally, and that means there are few places on the Internet where the politicians aren’t.
Lamont and Malloy’s ads are typical of a medium that allows candidates to put their messages in the least expected places.
According to a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 71% of Americans now get at least some of their news online. All those eyeballs mean that Internet ad buys have become an integral part of any campaign.
“It’s becoming a must-do as opposed to a maybe do,” Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), said.
While most campaigns these days use Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to provide free advertising and generate momentum, in the end “when it comes to moving the needle of the race, when you’re trying to persuade the last 8 to 10% of voters,” said Tracey, there’s no substitute for paid advertising.
“When you look at your Facebook community, in many ways it’s an artificial measure,” said Tracey. “At the end of the day the people who make up that population are people who already support you–or the opposition director of your opponent, who’s waiting for you to make a mistake.”
The politicians have gotten the message. According to CMAG, nationwide they’ve already spent over $30 million on Internet advertising so far in this election cycle, with the heavy-duty campaigning still to come. That’s more than candidates spent in all of 2008, a presidential election year.
When a campaign wants to make an online ad-buy, there are two types of ads relevant to campaigns and two methods of placing them.
The two types are direct response advertising-so-called “keyword ads” that return a link and a few lines of text in response to an Internet search–and display advertising, which refers to banner ads on websites.
The two methods of placement are contextual and targeted. Contextual ads react to a specific action, such as words typed into a search engine or reading an article containing certain words or phrases.
A few searches in Connecticut will reveal that most of the obvious key words, like candidate names, “Connecticut Politics” or “Connecticut Democrats” have been bought up on Yahoo and Google, and a little browsing will show campaigns run ads on sites visited by likely voters, such as cnn.com and nyt.com.
Targeted ads react to actions undertaken over a period of time, actions recorded using tracker files.
Almost every website installs tracker files on visiting computers. A recent article by the Wall Street Journal found the top 50 visited websites install an average of 64 of these tracker files on visiting computers. Ad services can use the information the tracker files gather to build anonymous profiles about computer users-profiles that can include everything from ZIP code to favorite TV shows.
Even without the profiles, advertisers can target specific locations using each computer’s IP address. IP, or Internet Protocol, addresses are assigned to Internet service providers within region-based blocks, so while it’s not perfect, each IP address has an approximate geographical location.
How targeted can an ad get?
“We can target down to a city block – it’s very good – we can draw polygons around areas, and within those polygons we can make sure that only certain people see” the ad, said Peter Pasi, Executive Vice President of Emotive LLC, an online ad agency that works mainly with Republican campaigns.
So the Malloy campaign can place an ad on an out-of-state website, such as Philly.com, but have it only appear to residents of Connecticut who have displayed online behavior typical of likely voters.
“The internet allows us to have a very efficient media buy,” said Michael Bassik, who works on Internet ads for the Malloy campaign. While residents of Fairfield County, for example, are very expensive to reach through traditional means because their television media market includes parts of New York, by targeting only sites that likely primary voters would visit and only for Connecticut IP addresses, they can reach those audiences at a fraction of the cost, Bassik said.
Most online ad agencies also have a robust kit of tools to assess the effectiveness of their ad campaigns.
“We apply source codes to every one of our ads, so if they visit the website, fill out a form, make a donation we know where that came from,” said Pasi.
Bassik’s ad agency, Global Strategy Group, measures impressions (each time an ad is seen), how many times they are clicked, even the average number of seconds a campaign video is watched, and then fines tune ad-buys.
Lamont’s campaign uses The Campaign Group – the same organization that makes its television ad-buys – to place their Internet ads. The campaign would not discuss online strategy or how it measures ad effectiveness.
As with traditional advertising, some campaigns use the Internet more effectively than others.
Whereas everyone buys television ads on the same stations, the fragmented nature of the Internet allows for peculiar gaps. For example, Malloy has bought extensive keyword advertising on Google, but none on Yahoo! Lamont is on both search engines, but has no ads for obvious keywords like “Connecticut governor.”
Malloy’s campaign also is using what Josh Koster of online ad agency Koster + Chong calls “long tail advertising.”
In the “long tail” method, campaigns custom craft hundreds of different ads and then place them to maximum effect. Wrote Koster in Politics Magazine: “Instead of identifying the most universally persuasive messages and broadcasting them to a wide audience, in the long-tail model you take the most persuasive messages and nanotarget each one to the right niche.”
Dan Kelly, Malloy’s campaign manager, said the campaign is using long tail advertising to communicate policy positions, placing ads touting Malloy’s energy plan on Google keyword searches such as “improve energy prices” or “improve energy cost.”
That puts Malloy’s campaign ahead of many others. But that can be just a temporary advantage in a field that is evolving so quickly.
“I think there’s a lot of flailing about. The industry’s growing fast,” said Ryan Singel, a blogger for Wired Magazine. “There are all kinds of new attempts and new ways to make ads targeted, and a lot of people who are setting out don’t know what they’re doing or where to advertise, and it’s ever changing. It’s far from a settled science at this point.”