Spending on mobile ads by political campaigns this election cycle will take up only a fraction of candidates' war chests, but the digital teams of GOP presidential hopefuls are busily experimenting with mobile, using it to target specific locations and interest groups.
TV blitzes delivering attack ads are as potent a weapon as ever, made obvious by the first contest of the primary season, when Mitt Romney came from behind to nearly scratch out a win in Iowa after a super PAC backing him blanketed the state with TV ads attacking Newt Gingrich. But the penetration of smartphones in the U.S. (over 50% among teenagers and adults under 45, according to Nielsen) makes mobile a compelling area for experimentation. Mobile ad campaigns supporting Mr. Romney, Ron Paul and dropouts Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have run so far.
"If we don't hit them on their mobile phones, we're missing a huge opportunity for people who are voters," said Mr. Romney's digital director, Zac Moffatt. Mr. Moffatt oversaw a campaign aimed at getting out the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire through mobile ad network Jumptap. It targeted ZIP codes that the team determined had a high concentration of Romney supporters and delivered expandable ad units enabling actions such as watching a video or looking up a caucus location. The campaign is also working with Jumptap for the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
The Romney campaign has also been running mobile search ads through Google AdWords with a "click-to-call" feature that enabled a New Hampshire resident searching for "Mitt Romney" to call a campaign office after being served the impression. Mr. Moffatt noted that buying mobile search terms in the days leading up to a contest is significantly cheaper than buying for desktops, since there's not the same level of competition.
Ms. Bachmann's campaign bought "click-to-call" mobile search ads and made a big push in advance of the Iowa Straw Poll last August. She won that poll.
"'Get out the vote' is a perfect opportunity for mobile advertising," said Eric Frenchman, a digital strategist with Connell Donatelli, who worked on Ms. Bachmann's campaign. "It's probably the last screen someone will look at when they're going in to vote."
Mobile also offers opportunities for targeting more creatively. Before Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race last week, his digital strategist, Vincent Harris, was targeting mobile ads within a two- to five-mile radius of the center of campus at the University of South Carolina as well as nine Christian colleges in the state, including Furman and Bob Jones University. The ads were uniquely branded with each college's color schemes and mascots and directed people to a landing page where they were urged to sign up as precinct captains or take other actions to assist the campaign.
Mr. Harris is also currently running mobile ads for another client, GOP Senate hopeful Linda McMahon, to University of Connecticut students in her home state, and he intends to target New York-bound train commuters. Though he wouldn't ordinarily think of exceeding 20% of his digital budget on mobile, he anticipates spending as much as a third in that particular race, since Connecticut is densely populated and mass-transit-oriented, making people a captive audience of their phones while in transit.
"I think that it's smart for campaigns to engage in mobile as the cost is lower and engagement rates are higher than with display ads," he said.
Total digital ad spending across all races is expected to approach 10% in 2012, likely a significant increase over 2010. For example, House candidates only devoted 5% of their budgets to digital in the 2010 mid-term election. Since mobile is largely untested, it's only expected to be a fraction of the overall pie. It could comprise a mere 5% to 12% of campaigns' digital budgets, according to Pete Snyder, a technology entrepreneur and chairman of VA Victory 2012, a group that aims to help elect Republicans in Virginia.
Though the cost-effectiveness of mobile search campaigns and the targeting capabilities are impressive, there's a question of scalability. For a House race where a candidate has $500,000 to spend on advertising, for example, and roughly 10% goes to digital and a fraction of that could be allotted to mobile, campaigns may not see the value of a small buy, said Paul Winn, political director for the Republican media-buying firm Smart Media Group.
"There becomes a point when you wonder if you have effective frequency," he said.