Obama cracks the digital whip

President Barack Obama is spending vast amounts more than his challenger for the White House, Mitt Romney, on internet advertising. He is pouring millions of dollars into attempts to sway online voters in a move that his campaign strategists hope will give him an edge in the November presidential election.

New data compiled by the internet marketing research firm comScore shows that in April the Obama for America campaign placed more than 30 times as many digital adverts as Romney’s equivalent operation.

Although Romney’s digital team has promised to up its game as the election approaches, his presence in the online political battlefield remains negligible. ComScore records that Obama paid for 865-million online display adverts across the web last month. By contrast, the Mitt Romney for President campaign mustered barely 26-million adverts.

Romney’s online presence is running at a level that the Obama campaign surpassed a year ago. By May last year Obama was already placing 70-million online adverts and in January the campaign vamped up its digital investment to almost 800-million, where it has remained ever since.

The new figures are surprising, because April was the first month in which Romney was clearly the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidential election. He clinched the Republican presidential nomination with a resounding victory in Texas this week as he finally cleared the benchmark of 1144 delegates.

Romney the underdog
Romney endured serious threats from Republican opponents such as Rick Perry and Rick Santorum to reach a goal that his late father, the former Michigan governor George Romney, fell short of achieving: winning his party’s stamp of approval as its presidential candidate.

It is always difficult to unseat an incumbent president and Romney is considered the underdog. But with the economy staggering, polls are close. Observers had expected to see a more aggressive attempt on Romney’s part to play catch-up now that the nomination was in the bag, but it has failed to materialise.
“We expected that Romney’s activity would have ratcheted up at this point, but we are not seeing that,” said Andrew Lipsman, a comScore analyst who specialises in political and digital advertising. “The early indication is that there isn’t any major closing of the gap.” 

Although the Romney campaign is managing to make serious inroads into Obama’s overall fundraising advantage, most of the extra firepower it is accumulating appears to be going towards traditional campaigning techniques. In particular, Romney’s team, flanked by several well-funded partisan Super Pacs (political action committees) led by Karl Rove and the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, are gearing up to unleash a blitzkrieg of negative TV adverts on the American electorate.

Obama is also expected to devote most of his war chest to traditional TV advertising. But he has also set aside a substantial portion of the 2012 coffers for more innovative attempts to involve and engage online voters.

$19-million on online advertising
Already in the 2012 election cycle, the Obama for America team, headquartered in Chicago, has spent $19-million on online advertising – more than the entire amount spent by Obama in this area in 2008. The interactive marketing news site ClickZ calculates that, at current rates, the team will spend $35-million on digital advertising by November, although that could prove to be an underestimate.

Obama’s online advertising strategy is being masterminded by Andrew Bleeker and Nathaniel Lubin, veterans of his first run on the White House four years ago. After 2008 Bleeker set up his own private consultancy, Bully Pulpit Interactive, where he was joined by Lubin, who has now circled back to lead the on-the-ground work on online marketing in the Obama headquarters.

Bleeker and Lubin have set out how they see the challenge for digital media in the 2012 presidential election in a new book of essays that explores the way in which political campaigns are changing in the face of technological innovation.

They predict in Margin of Victory that 2012 will “blow prior campaigns out of the water”.

As more money and staff are devoted to online marketing, they say, the 2012 cycle will finally achieve the aspirations of previous campaigns. The authors identify three ways in which online advertising has the power to transform the battle.

Custom solutions
First, messages can be targeted much more tightly than TV ads to core groups of voters, reaching down, they say, to the level of the “zip code or even, in some cases, the individual level, bringing custom solutions to the table that will match the distinct messages to specific audiences”.

Second, campaigns will this year move their online marketing away from computers to cellphones. That will be particularly important in reaching certain demographics, such as Hispanic voters who spend a disproportionate amount of their online time on mobile devices.

Third, online video advertising is going to be huge this year. Unlike TV advertising, which can only be targeted to a city or region, an online video can be served to a voter with his or her precise geolocation and behavioural interests, greatly enhancing the relevance and the impact of the message.

“The 2012 election is very likely to be incredibly tight,” Bleeker and Lubin write. “Winning messages are going to be the ones that cut through the clutter – not just with memorable creative work but also by being tailored to key segments.”

Social media will also be an important part of the jigsaw. Obama again has a massive head start in this area, having already amassed more than 26.7-million Facebook fans to Romney’s 1.8-million followers.

A comScore study of the uses of social media by the presidential campaigns highlights their value as a way of amplifying the candidate’s message. In January, for instance, Obama bought 800-million online display adverts at a cost of more than $4-million.

In addition, though, comScore calculates that Obama leveraged an extra 66-million display advert impressions as a result of his followers passing on messages to their friends. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Ed Pilkington
Ed Pilkington works from New York. Chief reporter of the @GuardianUS. [email protected] Public key: https://t.co/YC091ij6wo Ed Pilkington has over 19685 followers on Twitter.

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