Election 2.0: Who's Winning the Online Race -- and Is It Translating to the Polls?
Presidential candidates are known for pouring millions of dollars into campaign advertising. Historically, this has meant television, radio and billboard advertising.
However, there has been a major change in what advertisers have found to be the most effective channel for their budgets since the last presidential election year. Since search engines revolutionized a cost-per-click advertising platform, media budgets have been migrating from hard-to-measure offline channels to highly measureable online channels. With this trend receiving press worldwide in major publications, it is impossible for presidential hopefuls to ignore the Internet. After all, where would you go to do your research?
Americans are turning to the Internet not only to research candidates, but also to find out the latest dirt, read the candidates' blogs, track candidate appearances and become their favorite candidate's friend on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. "Hildawg," "Bama," "Johnny Boy" or "Mikey" are some of the nicknames used for candidates on social networking sites, and once you become their "friend," it is perfectly fine to refer to them this way in this unique space.
So, how are online campaigning efforts netting out? All candidates have fully embraced social networking sites successfully. This is surprising, as Web 2.0 is a relatively new phenomenon. Some are utilizing display advertising, and most are utilizing search -- both paid and organic optimization.
The display advertising efforts of Mike Huckabee's campaign win the award for strategic innovation. Huckabee's campaign geo-targeted ads specifically to the upcoming state primaries, tailored the creative copy according to the specific state and placed the ads on sites that contain information on health care and other important issues. As marketers we must ask, "Was it effective?" According to data from site traffic profiler Hitwise, that seems to be the case.
Geo-targeting ad placements became a heavily used tactic in mid-January in the paid search campaigns. Most of the candidates employed these types of placements without realizing that they were canceling out the gross majority of the nation.
Going into the New Hampshire primary, all major candidates except Hillary Clinton were advertising on Google, and many began targeting their ads specifically to New Hampshire. The tactic of geo-targeting ads can be used to measure response in different areas independently and even to tailor the creative copy to each area.
Still, by targeting only one state, 49 states and the District of Columbia were left untouched.
A candidate who successfully utilized geo-targeting in paid search was John McCain. On Jan. 28, the day before McCain's victory in the Florida Primary, his ads appeared on searches in Florida on his competitors' names.
Since competitor terms typically do not generate a high click rate, it can be extremely difficult to stay active on them. This tactic allows the McCain campaign to accomplish a methodical attack on the competition one state at a time.
Now let's go back to Clinton, the only candidate not utilizing paid search. From the perspective of paid SEM, it is baffling to see a candidate who is highly scrutinized by negative media reports do absolutely nothing in terms of search engine reputation management. While she is not doing anything on paid search, she actually won the New Hampshire primary and even won the popular vote in Nevada. Perhaps it's due to the lack of legal guidelines governing this channel, but everyone else is taking advantage of it. The day after New Hampshire, Clinton did have ads on Google; however, they apparently were pulled a few days later.
On Jan. 28, searches for the term "Hillary Clinton" resulted once again with negative news at the top of the page. Conversely, Democratic Party rival Barack Obama had a more positive results page.
As the primary process continues to make its way through America's ballot boxes, conclusions regarding the relationship of search ads and the success of presidential campaigns will be most evident in the final election results.
The argument for the need for paid search in politics is weakened if Clinton is selected as the Democratic presidential candidate despite avoiding paid search throughout her party's primary campaign. However, as McCain was able to capitalize on search ads placed on his competitors' names as part of his campaign's strategy for winning the Florida primary, the benefits of paid search and politics become more evident. Regardless of which candidates win their party's nomination, we will continue to follow them ... both online and offline.
Janel Landis is senior director of search development and strategy at SendTec, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based multichannel, integrated marketing firm specializing in search engine marketing, direct response television and lead generation. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org