Online ads explode in final stretch

Originally published November 5, 2012

Digital advertising is exploding in the final days of the 2012 campaign, with both candidates capitalizing on new technology to micro-target voters in swing states as they sprint to the finish line.

Online targeting has been a feature of both campaigns throughout 2012, but it’s ramping up to new levels in the race’s endgame. Both campaigns are using geo-targeted ads to appeal to swing state voters on key issues and promote their get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Romney campaign is deploying what digital director Zac Moffatt calls a “granular” online ad campaign — targeting specific issues in regions where voters are receptive to them. The ads will run across digital and social media platforms, with both video and display ads on sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google and also running on mobile devices.

For example, he said, the campaign is running coal-themed display ads on various sites across the web, placed based on users’ browsing history, in Ohio and Virginia coal country.

“If I’m president, I’m going to be committed to all energy sources, above or below ground,” one display ad says, quoting Romney and linking to the campaign’s site.

The ads are, Moffatt said, intended to complement the overall ad campaign and political strategy within each state.

“What we look to is how [Romney political director Rich Beeson] and his political team breaks down the state, how our strategy team breaks down the state, and augment that as best we can,” he said.

Other locally-targeted examples being featured on YouTube include a video ad of laid-off workers from Delphi in western Ohio, a video in defense-heavy northern Virginia featuring military generals praising Romney and a Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval ad in the Reno, Nev., area, where Sandoval’s approval rating is the highest.

“The more relevant that a campaign can make an ad to an individual, the more likely to persuade that individual the ad will be,” said GOP digital strategist Vincent Harris. “The beautiful thing about the web and advertising digitally is there is such a breadth of data and information to target users from — that simply does not exist on TV.”

And while the campaigns are still doing what they’ve always done in terms of persuading voters online, they’ve also moved into full get-out-the-vote mode.

“It’s GOTV time,” said Jim Walsh, the CEO of the Democratic online campaign firm DSPolitical. “You’ve got to go after low-performing Democrats, folks who have previously not been likely to turn out, and make sure that you’re going after them with pre-roll video and banner video and banner ads.”

That’s a strategy the Obama campaign is jumping on, running search ads and promoted tweets. The Obama campaign does not regularly discuss its digital strategy and did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

When users plug a term like “Election Day” or a host of other election-related terms into a search engine online, they get an ad from the Obama campaign urging them to vote.

“Vote Nov. 6 in Virginia — It’s almost time to vote in VA,” one search ad says, linking to a page on the Obama website. “Find your voting location today.”

Romney’s team, too, says it has made the switch from a persuasion-based message to one that’s aimed at turning out supporters on Tuesday.

“We’ve moved our ad strategy really over from persuasion to mobilization,” Moffatt said. “Eighty or 90 percent of our budget within there is just heavily turning to people who haven’t voted and who we want to vote.”

An Ohio-specific display ad from the Romney campaign tells voters there to “Vote Early for America’s Comeback Team,” and links to a page on the Romney campaign site.

A further benefit of the amount of information that can be gleaned from the web about voters is that, in addition to targeting specific voters the campaigns want to persuade to turn out on Tuesday, they can also stop advertising to the millions of people who have already voted early.

“That is something that online simply did not exist in 2008 and it’s certainly been was nowhere near the ease of targeting these folks as it is now,” Harris said of the ability to remove specific individuals from advertising.

Moffatt said the Romney campaign has worked to match voter files with online profiles so they aren’t inundating voters who have already cast their ballots.

“We have taken into consideration actions people have taken to this point, voting being a huge determinant, and we’ve gone into our files and taken out people we believe have voted already,” he said.

The airwaves in every swing state are saturated at this point, Walsh said, making it that much more crucial for the campaigns to take advantage of the micro-targeting the Internet offers.

“The airwaves are just flooded,” he said, adding that campaigns can “go online to be more efficient about it.”

Overall, online ads can help reach specific voters they couldn’t necessarily reach on traditional TV, Harris said.

“All of this is about reaching niche audiences, that are so hard to reach thru TV and traditional media means,” he said. “The Obama campaign and the Romney campaign are both capitalizing on the incredible ability to target these niche audiences.”

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