Online Advertising

shutterstock_256760854Depending on local laws and customs, parties may employ online advertising to spread their messages and recruit new supporters. Potential ad options include Google search ads, ads on Facebook and other social media channels, video ads on sites like YouTube, and display (“banner”) ads on content websites such as news, sports and entertainment sites.

Online ads are usually highly targetable. Site-specific ads reach the demographic groups that frequent those sites; for example, ads on a sports website will traditionally appear in front of men, while financial news sites will generally reach upper-income, urban populations. In some countries, ads can be targeted even more specifically, using web browser “cookies” to identify voters individually across a broad range of websites, if the laws allow it. In the U.S., cookie-targeting has become a popular tool to direct ads at particular demographics and/or at people living in specific political districts. In the European Union, though, privacy laws effectively ban cookie-targeting, though a small fraction of the population has opted into the practice.

Social media ads can also be targeted. Facebook advertisers, for instance, can aim content based on users’ demographic characteristics, location, interests and past behavior on the site. Crucially, advertisers can also upload a list of email addresses to Facebook to create a “custom audience,” which they can then target with ads. For instance, a party might create a custom audience of its own supporters and then use it to hit them with Get Out the Vote ads right before an election.

Once they’ve created a custom audience, party staff could try Facebook’s “look-alike” targeting feature, which anonymously identifies other Facebook users — across a broad range of demographic and behavioral factors — similar to those in the custom audience. Ads can then be displayed to the “look-alike” targets, who in this case are people similar to the party’s existing supporters, under the assumption that they’re likely to be supporters-in-waiting. Look-alike targeting has proven a useful tool for political groups and campaigns in many countries.

Other online advertising channels have their own unique targeting capabilities, and parties should investigate them carefully if they’re considering employing online ads to reach new or existing supporters.

Most Facebook ads are also functionally mobile ads, since so much of the site’s traffic comes from cell phones. Other forms of mobile advertising, for instance search ads or ads on mobile content websites, may also provide a useful channel for persuasion, recruiting and GOTV. Mobile ads will typically link to a web page that echoes the message from the ad.

Google Search Ads Help McAuliffe Win Virginia Governor Race

In the United States, Terry McAuliffe, the 2013 Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, prioritized advertising through Google as part of his campaign’s overall digital strategy. With the help of digital media marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, the McAuliffe campaign ran only the most effective ads through Google Search, starting almost a year ahead of election day. The campaign targeted key audiences by designing ads that appealed to specific demographics, such as African Americans, women and youth. Google’s ability to reach different platforms, including both mobile and desktop web and video searches, allowed the McAuliffe campaign to know exactly which group each ad targeted. For example, the campaign ran youth-oriented ads ahead of certain videos on YouTube. Although the campaign headed into election day with a lead against opponent Ken Cuccinelli, it never tempered its digital effort. In fact, it ran search ads directing searches for “polling place” to the McAuliffe campaign website’s polling place lookup tool.

In the end, the McAuliffe campaign’s digital-to-TV spending ratio was five times higher than Cuccinelli’s. McAuliffe’s digital marketing push might have given him the advantage over Cuccinelli in what turned out to be a narrow victory. This example demonstrates the value of targeted digital advertising for political parties and campaigns compared to TV advertising, especially in expensive media markets. Like the McAuliffe campaign, other campaigns can use targeted digital search ads to persuade key audiences and turn out voters as part of the GOTV effort.