Vincent Harris: Searching through the attack ads

By Vincent Harris
August 12
Campaigns & Elections

Search can and should be your first thought in the punch and counter-punch of rapid response politics.

Campaigns invest in digital marketing because it is the most targeted and measurable way to reach potential donors, volunteers, and most importantly—voters.

Even in 2014, the share of a campaign’s advertising budget allocated to digital still lags behind spending on “traditional” media like broadcast television. Regardless of how a campaign divides its media budget, though, nothing is more critical than reaching voters who are searching for your candidate or their opponent online.

The psychology behind search advertising and “intent” is critical to appreciating its persuasive power. When my wife watches “Dancing with the Stars” she intends to be delivered content featuring dancing celebrities. She cares about politics, but she isn’t turning on the television hoping to see an ad supporting one of my clients, even one she would be likely to support.

But when my wife takes valuable time out of her day to stop whatever she’s doing and type the name of a political candidate or a policy issue into a search engine, she is practically raising her hand and asking for relevant information.

When campaigns deluge television viewers with an inescapable 30-second ad, campaigns usually see a subsequent spike in searches online concerning that message. Research conducted in 2012 found that 64 percent of persuadable voters had used a search engine to fact-check claims made by political candidates.

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Vincent Harris, Founder and CEO of Harris Media

With trust in politicians at an all-time low, does anyone expect voters to become less cynical about claims in political ads?

Here’s how the process works: a political campaign runs an ad attacking its opponent. In the 2012 U.S. Senate primary in Texas, David Dewhurst spent millions of dollars on advertising attacking my client Ted Cruz on an obscure patent lawsuit regarding China.

In the old days, this attack probably would have gone all but unanswered. But immediately after the television ads began running, search traffic on the issue skyrocketed, and Ted’s campaign responded with a search ad directing inquiring voters to a facts page where they could learn Ted’s side of the story.

A more recent example is the Texas Lt. Governor primary, in which my client Dan Patrick also defeated Dewhurst. When Dewhurst launched attacks on Patrick about specific issues, such as Patrick’s decades-old name change, the Patrick campaign immediately created search ads responding to those attacks in real time.

Dewhurst’s claims that seemed to be “landing” more—the ones that caused search spikes—were met with additional ad money, updated truth content, and personally written posts from Patrick explaining his side of the story to voters.

And whenever voters searched for information on Dan Patrick’s three primary opponents, they were met with contrast messaging and driven to a website that defined them on the critical issue of illegal immigration.

Search can and should be your first thought in the punch and counter-punch of rapid response politics.

Moreover, search ads are cost-efficient because campaigns only pay for their ads to appear when a user types in certain keywords, such as “Alison Grimes” or “War on Coal.” The campaign only pays for the ad if users demonstrate their intent by clicking on it after seeing the call to action. This is a powerful means to proactively drive a message to voters who would rather trust information they’ve discovered themselves than information force fed to them.

When voters proactively seek information on your brand, your client’s stance on an issue, or the truthfulness of a television attack ad, what do they see? Search advertising is the most persuasive form of paid voter contact and one that campaigns fail to fully fund at their own peril.

In today’s media environment, a campaign cannot effectively deliver a message on one medium without closing the loop on another— and nothing is more important than responding to a voter’s search intent.

Vincent Harris is CEO of Harris Media, a digital communications firm in Austin, Texas. His firm ran digital on Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate race and is currently working with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection in Kentucky. Harris is working on his PhD at the University of Texas where his research interests include digital media and voter recall

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