NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As a swell of sharp retorts and pithy slogans deluge the electorate in time for the midterms, political strategists all over the country will be taking a page out of Scott Brown's online playbook. As the GOP candidate who upset Democrats for Ted Kennedy's vacant senate seat this past January, Sen. Brown proved how an aggressive, sophisticated -- and paid -- online-media strategy could help an upstart conservative win in liberal Massachusetts.
The unusual timing of that election, which came six months after Sen. Kennedy's death last year, has made it both a touchstone and prelude to this November's vote. And perhaps the most significant lesson to come out of that contest is the importance of escalating a pol's online presence -- and that means paying more money, not just relying on free Twitter accounts and uploading videos to YouTube and praying the audience will come.
"This election cycle is going to be a record cycle for online spending," said Pete Snyder, CEO of New Media Strategies, a digital agency working with a host of congressional candidates such as Roy Blunt, a Republican running for the open Senate seat in Missouri. "We're seeing in the neighborhood of [a] 20% to almost 30% increase over past years. That's incredible growth."
Compared to total media spending, however, digital allocation is still very small; Borrell Associates estimates digital will account for only 1% of 2010's total political ad spending of $4.2 billion.
It's not uncommon for a campaign's media budget to change weekly, especially this early in the election cycle, but other firms also say they are seeing as much as a 25% increase in the online advertising budget for campaigns compared to the last major political round in 2008. A recent report from Borrell estimates the total online political ad spending for 2010 will reach $44.5 million. For 2008, the firm estimated political ad expenditure was $22 million, but given that that was a presidential year along with a different mix of candidates, the two figures aren't entirely comparable.
Despite that disparity, Mr. Snyder said, "everyone's spending more this time -- you can't not afford to."
The political campaigns for 2010 are cultivating more nimble online media plans thanks to an increasingly competitive landscape. As Scott Brown's web strategist Rob Willington explains it, online campaigning has matured beyond webpage placeholders and email blasts and look more like a Cold War-style détente where campaigns stockpile words instead of bombs. This practice is known as the "Google surge," or, perhaps too literally, the "Google bomb."
"As a Republican in the Northeast, you're trying to fight for every scrap," he recently explained about Brown's January senate run, where he defeated the favorite, Martha Coakley. One of the campaign's major ploys involved a practice known as meta-tagging, where every piece of content was labeled with certain keywords, allowing it to be more readily surfaced in a Google search. "Every YouTube video we uploaded, we tagged it not only with 'Scott Brown' and 'Scott Brown for Senate,' but also with 'Martha Coakley,' 'Martha Coakley for Senate,' 'Coakley 2010,' basically anything related to the vote," said Mr. Willington, who is part of communications firm Swift Current. "And our paid strategy mirrored our free-media strategy, so we also bought all the search terms for Martha Coakley and Martha Coakley for Senate, too."
Strangely, the opposing side didn't do the same, effectively negating any bidding competition for those keywords. "I was kind of surprised," Mr. Willington said. "But now everyone knows that game so most likely a lot of people will be doing it next time around."
Vincent Harris, CEO of Harris Media, which handled digital media for Bob McDonnell's successful 2009 Virginia gubernatorial run, estimated they spent over $100,000 on search words for that campaign. "We were able to outbid our opponent, [state Sen. Creigh Deeds,] on keywords simply because we had more money," he said. But for the midterms, Mr. Harris, who is working on Rick Scott's gubernatorial bid for Florida, doesn't think the "Google bomb" should be the most important weapon in the arsenal.
"Last year, the majority of our spending was on Google search ads," he said, "and since then we've very much morphed. I'm trying to split it up: a third of our spending on search, a third on display and a third on Facebook."
Mr. Harris' Facebook budget has increased the most of the three categories. For the McDonnell campaign, Mr. Harris estimates they spent a total of $7,000 on Facebook ads. By contrast, Mr. Scott's midterm campaign this year has already spent $30,000 on Facebook, though the two campaigns aren't necessarily comparable given the vastly different size in population of each state. Internet companies have taken note and are looking to grab more of those dollars. AOL recently launched a self-service system for political advertising, which allows campaigns to target ads on its display network not only by audience segment but also by congressional district.
"We built it for the specific audience," said Jeff Levick, AOL's head of global advertising strategy.
Peter Pasi, the exec VP of digital consulting firm Emotive who is working on John Kasich's gubernatorial run for Ohio, called AOL's tool "pretty impressive." "It's a reflection that ad networks are beginning to rapidly shift online in the political space," he said, noting that in the past campaigns were unwilling to pay for display advertising largely because it wasn't targetable. "Now you can play with it," he said of AOL's tool. "We have clients that are remarkably open to display -- night and day from the last cycle."
But while search, display and Facebook are quickly becoming emerging mainstays of political advertising, many campaigns say the killer app is still the humble email address.
"Pound for pound, it's the most powerful tool in the box," said Joe Rospars, creative director for online ad firm Blue State Digital. Mr. Rospars served as President Barack Obama's new-media director for his presidential run and is advising a number of Democratic candidates for the midterms. "Email continues to be the core way in which money is raised and volunteers are driven to go to events. ... In terms of response rates, email will come out on top."
Jonathan Feifs, campaign manager for Tommy Sowers' run for a House seat representing Missouri's eighth congressional district, said the Sowers email campaign is designed to be as interactive as possible. "We want it to be as sharable as possible so it'll drive people to our site, which helps increase donations." The campaign also capitalizes on low-cost social media solutions, such as Twitter. "You'd be surprised by how many people are on Twitter," he said.
Top Tips for Online Campaigning
Tag everything. Anything uploaded to YouTube, which is essentially free media, should be tagged with any name, phrase, issues related to the campaign, opponent's name, etc.
Outbidding your opponent isn't as simple as just bidding high. If you offer a lower bid but would potentially yield higher impressions, Google will give you the keyword. So make sure your sites maintain relevance. In line with that, don't waste money on owning your candidate's name, as Google will rank that highest based on its quality index. Rather, bid to own issue words, such as "economy" or "jobs." Also, drop Google bombs prior to key events on the campaign trail.
Still considered the killer app of online campaigning, Messages shouldn't be rhetorical -- the people on your email list already are converts. Instead, email messages should drive people to specific action. But be sure not to abuse it.
Display is a way to reach undecideds -- they're the digital equivalent of lawn signs. Also, most display networks allow you to weed out channels where readers are less likely to be converted, such as Huffington Post for conservatives and Fox News for liberals. Don't waste your money there.
Low cost and highly targetable, Facebook also offers fairly easy-to-use tools to find diehards as well as bring in others. Like email, Facebook is a way to begin building out your networks of supporters, but is less likely a place for converting undecideds.
In small and fractured media markets, Twitter might be the easiest, lowest-cost solution. But this is a relatively new publishing platform, and many in the electorate may not always be plugged into the stream of posts.
Of course, all digital agencies will say a campaign should spend as much as possible on digital advertising. But some campaigns we spoke with say they are allocating as much as 20% to 30% of their media budgets are toward online buys. TV is still the most expensive, most trusted, perhaps most effective media tool. But online campaigning works better early in a campaign cycle, as it can more readily tap into diehard voters, who tend to seek out information and like-minded voters online. Digital marketing can also be a great end-game tool where campaigns can get those die-hards to drive other people to go out and vote.