Presidential Campaigns Spend Record Amount on Digital Ads Using Very Different Strategies

Originally published November 10, 2012

Obama used Genome from Yahoo! to make ad buys across many sites, while Romney focused on boosting volume on fewer properties

With the presidential election behind us, it’s all over but the shouting—and the campaign ads.

Now it’s time for digital marketers to think about how the campaigns used online ads, which played an even more prominent role in 2012 than they did during the 2008 elections. On Wednesday, Time magazine’s website posted an in-depth look at the rigorous number-crunching behind the Obama campaign that makes it clear just how performance- and data-driven their strategy was.

“If 2008 was the year politicians woke up to the Internet, 2012 may well be known as the election when online political ads became a budget line,” AdWeek Washington Bureau Chief Katy Bachman wrote. “Total spending topped $300 million, double what was invested in 2008.”

Obama and Romney both spent more than previous campaigners, but adopted very different strategies, says AdExchanger. Obama’s campaign spread digital ads across a wide range of sites and buying platforms, using the Genome from Yahoo! audience management platform to place 34% of his total impressions, with the remaining 66% spread across many other platforms.

Romney’s campaign took the opposite approach, significantly shrinking the number of sites used to run ads while boosting impression volume on selected sites by 400% over the last few months of the race.

“When a client, in this case the Obama campaign, is known for such rigor and discipline in their analysis of marketing spend efficiency, it’s really rewarding to see our platform be entrusted with such a high share of their digital spend,” said Peter Foster, General Manager of Audience and Performance Advertising for Yahoo!. “We believe that Genome offers a unique combination of proprietary and third party data, predictive analytics, and top quality inventory from Yahoo! and others, that digital marketers can use to zero in on their target audience, deliver a message, and see a measurable return.”

An online awakening

This was a predictable progression, as the 2008 election revealed the power of digital marketing and online video consumption has become more common during the past four years. Republican nominee John McCain’s lack of engagement on social channels in 2008 was much noted after his loss. The GOP took that hard lesson to heart and launched a flood of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube initiatives this time around, cutting into Obama’s advantage on this front.

According to Adweek, social media strategies allowed each candidate to reinforce advertisements presented across all other platforms as well, establishing an “echo chamber” for their core messaging.

On-target ads

As is often the case, the candidates took stock of which locales they had locked up before allocating all available resources to a few key swing states in the final weeks. Technological innovation proved invaluable in this regard, enabling candidates to identify crucial audience demographics and the messaging they would be most receptive to.

“The more relevant that a campaign can make an ad to an individual, the more likely to persuade that individual that ad will be,” GOP political strategist Vincent Harris told Politico. “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.”

The Romney camp spoke with Politico about the importance of search analytics and geofencing to furthering its localization strategy in key districts. For instance, voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio routinely saw coal-themed display ads reminding them that Romney was committed to energy sources “above or below ground.”

The Obama camp also leveraged Web data to further its goals. It also created interactive ads to help mobilize traditionally reticent voting blocks. These video ads both prompted viewers to vote and contained convenient links to information about poll locations.

Although it’s typically the private sector exposing the public sector to innovative digital opportunities, campaign managers turned the tables in an election season that the advertising industry will be studying for lessons. The persistent messaging may have seemed extreme by Election Day, but it also may also have provided a template for future multi-channel, multi-screen national ad campaigns.