As the primaries move west, political professionals and voters are paying close attention to poll numbers, attack ads and gaffes in the Republican presidential-nominee horse race, now consolidating around former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Within the digital-marketing community, we're equally focused on what this election cycle portends for the future of online political advertising.
Presidential elections have served as important catalysts and benchmarks in the slow but steady adoption of digital marketing tactics by political campaigns. The 2004 election represented a breakthrough, as the Dean campaign used emerging social networking tools and communities to generate a potent new stream of donations and to organize and engage supporters. In the 2008 cycle, the Obama campaign took this process to the next level, with a well-tuned digital marketing machine, blending search and display, social and email -- and blew the roof off with record-breaking levels of donations and digital engagement, not to mention a residual digital community the President's political organization continues to mine.
So where will the 2012 presidential race fit within this trajectory? The 2010 midterm elections provided us some good clues. Overall, digital spending on political ads continued to grow at a steady pace. Political campaigns adapted quickly to the rapidly growing supply of pre-roll video inventory, into which they could deploy existing video assets. We also saw the immediate impact of the Citizens United ruling, as 527s and others ramped up their digital investments.
As independent expenditures continue to fuel significant increases in online political advertising, we see the major new theme for the 2012 cycle as data. Using data platforms (such as Crowd Control, the data-management platform marketed by my company, Lotame Solutions), political campaigns and their digital agencies are able for the first time to seamlessly marry relevant and privacy-safe data sources to target their online advertising buys. These data sources include both offline registration data (brought online in ways that de-identify personal information while associating political affiliation and other relevant voting data with a browser cookie), and more traditional online data types, such as age, gender, geography and the interests and actions expressed by a web user's browsing behaviors. By building audiences using these rich sources of data, campaigns can be concentrated and efficient in their advertising -- to raise visibility, persuade prospects, earn donations and mobilize supporters.
In 2010, Blaise Hazelwood, the founder of Grassroots Targeting, helped Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal get re-elected. Hazelwood emphasizes that "the power of data is no longer exclusive to offline voter contact. For a candidate to reach all of his or her potential supporters and win an election, he or she must also target online, using individual data points to persuade and to motivate turnout." Though we're still early in the 2012 cycle, we're already seeing strong interest in these data-driven advertising tactics.
How will prospective voters experience these developments? For starters, voters in swing states should prepare to be inundated -- not only by the expected phone bank calls, robocalls, mailers and TV ads, but also by an onslaught of online ads from every digital corner (search, display, email, pre-roll). On the plus side, with the greater use of smart data, consumers should see fewer irrelevant ads and more ads that relate to candidates and issues of interest to them.
That said, given the unprecedented amount of money that will be invested in political advertising overall, and the increasing percentage of this spending that will be earmarked for digital, the average swing-state resident may simply feel inundated -- especially once campaigns race to deploy their remaining gunpowder at the end of the campaign.
Will 2012 mark a turning point when political campaigns realize that digital advertising offers them even more efficient and impactful marketing channels, and at much lower cost per impact, than their more traditional channels? Not in the sense that campaigns will invest less in their traditional go-to channels, as confirmed by the heavy TV spending we've already seen in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But we do believe 2012 will reflect another significant step forward in shifting the share of ad spending towards digital -- and that savvy campaigns, party groups, 527s and other political spenders who make use of all of the available digital tools, data, channels and tactics will reap the benefit of their foresight through superior advertising outcomes and more victories Nov. 6, 2012.