Candidates Turn to Web Video to Woo Voters

If television is a “nuclear bomb,” Web video is a laser. Ben Jacobs explains.

Online political advertising is coming of age this year–and it looks an awful lot like television.

For the first time, major party committees are mandating that campaigns earmark 10 percent of their media buys for online advertising. While this still lags behind the 15 percent standard for advertising commercial products, it’s a major shift in how campaigns connect with voters. The Romney campaign anticipates spending at least 10% of its ad budget online and Obama, with a much larger digital team, is likely to match that. Although political campaigns have long used the Internet to communicate with supporters, from Howard Dean’s meetups to Ron Paul’s “money bombs,” this will be the first cycle in which the Web is being widely used to woo undecided voters.

Television, says Republican consultant Rick Wilson, is “a nuclear bomb,” guaranteed to hit its target, but also everyone who happens to be anywhere near it. In contrast, he said, Web video is like a laser: tightly focused on a precise target and delivering a specific message.

What finally brought politicos onboard was the rise of streaming video and the end of the broadcast era. Thirty percent of Americans don’t watch any live network television, shielding them from the 30-second political ads that have been a staple of American politics for 60 years. But they’re still watching video on screens, and campaigns are adjusting their messaging and ad buys accordingly, now that video has become a Web staple.

As Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media points out, “any campaign that doesn’t recognize that the web is now central to winning the election is a dinosaur waiting to become extinct.” Campaigns still lag in Rasiej’s view because political consultants, who get paid a percentage of the television ad buys, don’t get similarly rewarded for placing buys online. But as more Americans abandon live television, he says, consultants have started to more fully embrace advertising on the web.

Even four years ago, online advertising was largely limited to banner ads and Google Adwords. These were sophisticated in their own ways—John McCain had 50,000 different Google Adwords campaigns running in 2008, according to Becky Donatelli, his campaign’s online guru—but they all required a click. The viewer had to opt in to be engaged, the virtual equivalent of someone channel-surfing in hopes of finding a political ad.

Web video finally brought passive ad viewing online with the advent of preroll and midroll video. These are the clips that pop up before YouTube videos or wedged into the commercial breaks of a show on Hulu. The spots often seem just like regular television ads, but there’s a key difference: advertisers know who is watching them, and how those people are responding to them.

While advertisers on television buy time on the nightly news or the game of the week, online they aren’t buying programming but groups of people, with the ad showing up wherever those people happen to land on the Web. Although personal data is anonymized, advertisers are effectively buying individual voters, clustered by geography or interest, in a process that Democratic online strategist Jeff Jacobs compared to “the pit in a major world stock exchange.” Ads follow voters as they surf across the Web. A potential Republican wandering on Daily Kos might see a Mitt Romney ad while most readers stay in their liberal bubble.

With preroll, “you can really target the content for the audience, and you rearrange the content” to appeal to that group of viewers, said Claudine Cheever, chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi. And that content can be quickly re-arranged, depending on how viewers react to it, as ad makers receive close to real-time data on viewer actions—if viewers click to skip the video, for instance, or if they click through on any links contained in it. Considering most campaigns can’t afford to poll to measure the impact of their television ads, says Democratic online consultant Scott Zumwalt, those spots are the equivalent of “lighting a candle and praying that your ads work.”

Web videos have other advantages over their televised cousins: they don’t have to be exactly 30 or 60 seconds, which gives ad makers more creative control. John McCain’s most successful Web ad in 2008 was a simple four-second clip of him getting off a plane and returning to the United States after seven years as a POW embedded in a banner ad and saluting. And the 2002 law that requires campaign television and radio ads to have the candidate say “I approve this message” doesn’t apply to online spots, which makes it easier for campaigns to go negative.

Still, campaigns tend to “repeat history,” said Jacobs, and it’s always easier for consultants to sell candidates on what worked in the last war than to convince them to spend money on something new. People were hesitant about advertising on television in the early 1950s, he says, even though “people weren’t just listening to radio.”