Presidential elections are always major events for the country, but the 2012 electoral cycle will also be historic for the digital advertising industry. Politicians' spending on digital advertising has doubled since the 2010 midterm elections, according to a survey by STRATA, and it's still only February.
But there's a learning curve for political advertisers, who have never had to lean so heavily on digital -- especially video--where there's a unique opportunity to deliver those TV messages to targeted audiences online. This results in them missing opportunities.
Mitt Romney's campaign deserves credit for circulating a YouTube video that taught voters how to caucus for Romney in Iowa, but that video could have had a much larger impact. It was viewed more than 3,000 times since going online on December 9, but it could have reached far more voters had it been targeted to locations in Iowa, especially to prospective voters demonstrating pro-Romney behaviors online.
Political campaigns eat, sleep and breath data. They know their target audience, and they know which issues undecided voters are hemming and hawing over. By leveraging this data to build audience sets, they can target their ads based around the issues that matter most to subsets of voters. The Romney campaign, for example, could have cast a wide net prior to the Iowa caucus, targeting thousands of voters across the state, with the "How to Caucus" video as a crucial piece. Obviously that video only appeals to people already in Mitt's camp. For the undecided voters, targeted video presents the chance to put the candidate and message in front of the voter as they're deciding on the issues.
What good is a Gingrich smear ad on TV if the voter is already against Gingrich? With online video, campaigns can target ads built around certain opponents or issues. It's completely possible to serve different creative to different users, based on the pages they've visited or the behaviors they've displayed (not that LiveRail endorses smear tactics, but you get the point).
So how can campaigns accomplish this? The first step is to work with the largest aggregators of inventory to ensure maximum reach, and maximize the chance of finding/targeting specific audiences. Finding Gingrich supporters, in certain states, at scale, means working with the world's largest portals and major exchanges and using a video-DSP to access the inventory via RTB.
Advertisers also need to develop a domain blocking and domain allow list. The blocking list is crucial, as no campaign wants to be associated with objectionable content. In some respects, political advertisers are even more sensitive to the concept of "brand safety" than traditional brand advertisers. Block lists allow them to target consumers as they travel across the web while avoiding questionable ad placements. Additional brand safety vendors, like Peer39 and Affine are also crucially important, allowing campaigns to dynamically analyze placements in real-time to avoid accidental delivery into non-family friendly environments.
Next, campaigns need to consider their strategies to develop custom data segments of the audiences they want to reach or deliver custom messages to. Technologies like retargeting enable a candidate to build up a real-time "database" of online visitors to specific pages or sites, or who have performed some action or behavior elsewhere on the web that could act as an indicator of political affiliation, and then reach back out to them as they travel the web.
These data sets can then be used for both targeting and creative customization, but planning how to acquire and build these data pools is a complex challenge. Campaigns also have to think about collecting campaign data and leveraging it to improve their results. Online lets them optimize on the fly, so campaigns need to monitor which ads perform best in real-time. Again, different types of data come from different campaigns. If the campaign goal is to solicit donations from core constituents, be sure to track conversions to learn whether viewers reached the donation page after an impression.
Digital will play an important part in the 2012 campaign, but only if candidates use it properly. Applying the same spray and pray tactics used in TV to online fails to use the power. And ultimately, shouldn't the country want its president to understand the latest technologies?