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2012 Ad Plan: Clicking to Victory

President Barack Obama’s 2008 strategy set itself apart from other political campaigns at the forefront of online advertising technology, but that world is evolving rapidly. 

The increasing use of pre-roll and in-stream video, as well as pinpoint behavioral targeting, promises to become an integral part of every campaign. 

Larry Grisolano, a partner at AKPD Message and Media and director of paid media on the 2008 Obama campaign, told Roll Call the president’s team will continue pushing the limit.

“We obviously have taken pride in our innovation on this in the last campaign,” he said. “But it’s a technology that keeps growing and changing quickly enough that if you’re resting on your laurels from 2008, you’re a dinosaur now.”

Even the strongest advocates for moving campaign dollars to online advertising say TV remains the broadest avenue to get a message across, but online viewership is growing, as is the ability to track exactly whose eyeballs are doing the viewing.

“The big thing that drives this for political advertisers is the need to reach an audience that is shrinking on broadcast television,” Grisolano said. “It’s not that television is going away. It’s still the big, dominant medium. However, it is less big and less dominant than it had been.”

In 2010, Dan Malloy (D) faced a common challenge in his Connecticut gubernatorial bid: a wealthy primary opponent who could overpower him on the airwaves.

So Global Strategy Group, a New York-based Democratic consulting firm, set out early in the race to get engaged voters — the ones who pay attention long before the election — to get excited about the campaign and build a sense that Malloy would be viable against Ned Lamont. 

They used a cost-efficient strategy called a remarketing cookie that would place Malloy ads on nearly any website a visitor to Malloy’s campaign website went to after leaving his site. The goal was to give the appearance to potentially influential supporters that Malloy had the funds to compete and was actively advertising on major websites early in the campaign.

“We wanted to surround people with a sense that Dan Malloy was out there, aggressive,” said Michael Bassik, vice president of digital at Global Strategy Group. “The reaction was tremendous,” he added, noting that even reporters, another group that visits campaign websites, were tweeting about how Malloy’s ads were everywhere.

Despite being outspent 4-to-1 and trailing in the polls the entire race, Malloy won the August Democratic primary with 57 percent of the vote. And Global Strategy Group picked up a Pollie Award on Friday for its work.

Behavioral targeting allows campaigns and companies to have their ads shown to the people who most likely want to see them. Based on factors such as ZIP code, online searches and the content of the article they are reading — or even what they “like” on Facebook — each website visitor has a unique experience as it relates to the ads that appear on screen.

Back in 2008, the Obama campaign used Facebook to reach specific segments of the population. For example, just before the Wisconsin primary, it ran ads about same-day voter registration only on the pages of Facebook users who went to Wisconsin universities.

“It really burst onto the scene in 2008 with the Obama campaign,” said Andrew Roos, a Google political ads account executive and former Democratic consultant. “In 2010, it really started growing and came of age. Last cycle we had a 900 percent increase in statewide campaigns … that used online advertising.”

This now includes pre-roll and in-stream video — 15- or 30-second ads that run before or during a video a viewer has clicked on, including on YouTube. These were not available to candidates in 2008, Roos said, but in 2010 more than 100 campaigns ran them and even more will likely do so in 2012.

Because the appearance is nearly identical to a TV ad, they also allow consulting firms to utilize their in-house creative departments to reach a new and targeted audience.

“All campaign consultants better be as good at buying online as they are on TV or mail or radio,” said Todd Herman, who served as the chief digital strategist at the Republican National Committee last cycle.

Herman, who consults companies on mobile marketing, said that if campaigns were serious about being efficient with their advertising budgets, they would shave 15 percent from their TV budgets and dedicate it to online advertising, including display ads and pre-roll video.

Not all media consultants, including TV ad buyers, agree with that strategy. “It irks me when you talk about pulling a piece of pie out of your budget,” Danny Jester, media director at GMMB, said last week at the annual conference of the American Association of Political Consultants.

TV buyers are facing an increasingly fragmented marketplace. Media strategist Bruce Haynes noted at the conference that 59 percent of TV viewers tuned in to watch “I Love Lucy” in 1953. In 2008, just 18 percent watched the top-rated “American Idol.”

With increased fragmentation and the emergence of time-shifting technologies such as digital video recorders, each ad will be seen by fewer viewers, but it can allow for more targeted advertising. Still, at this point, TV simply cannot compete with the targeting possibilities online.

Fragmented though it is, television viewing is at an all-time high, and Herman said he sees direct-mail budgets more vulnerable to being eaten up by online video, which he believes is still a largely untapped market by consultants.

“For media consultants in D.C., someone’s going to have a lot of money to make,” he said. “If direct-mail people would jump into this, they could own the online video arena.”

Roos said TV and in-stream ads serve complementary roles, and that the online function offers three powerful additions to a traditional 30-second TV spot: With more people than ever watching video online, it extends the reach of an ad, it can extend the life of an ad, and it allows for a testing mechanism for different versions of an ad to see which one gets a stronger response before deciding what to put on the air.

“Many traditional consultants have a fear that the Internet will cannibalize TV budgets,” Global Strategy Group’s Bassik said. “Our research shows it’s an ideal complement to a TV ad campaign.”

While consultants and campaigns catch up to online video, the next frontier is mobile technology. Fewer than one in 10 people had smart phones in 2008, according to Roos. By 2010, more than one in five owned a smart phone.

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