Electioneering Via the Internet

As I finished watching the last of the presidential debates, I thought a lot about the challenges facing the candidates. In the most tightly contested race in years, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush had to pull out all the stops to gain any edge for tomorrow’s election.

When faced with a tight schedule, there are relatively few places that candidates can visit to deliver their message. Therefore, both parties rely heavily on advertising to help get their message to voters.

It is no wonder that both politics and advertising use the word “campaign” to describe their crusades, because they are so similar in what they are trying to accomplish. In both cases, the strategies are to:

• Get the message out to as many people as possible.

• Facilitate involvement and interaction.

• Reinforce the loyalty of core customers (or voters).

• Incite passive or apathetic customers (or voters) to take action.

• Encourage customers (or voters) to refer others to your product (or candidate).

• Persuade the undecided population to support your product (or candidate).

The only way to accomplish all of these objectives and emerge victorious is to get the message out as broadly and as deeply as possible before Election Day.

Online media should represent a significant part of the final plan, because only online media – such as banner ads, e-mail, interstitials and viral marketing – provide candidates with all of the following six key benefits during the final push of a race:

Reach and diversity. Since the last presidential election, the Internet has become a viable means of reaching a mass population. A recent Science Magazine study conducted by Lou Harris and Baruch College found that 58 million Americans are now online, 30 percent of the U.S. population. This figure has more than quadrupled in the past five years. When marketing to this growing audience, political campaign strategists can be assured that the response and results of their efforts reflect the population at large, as the same study shows that the Web-enabled population has matured to become virtually a mirror image of the overall makeup of the United States.

Therefore, spreading the message across this vast and diverse audience allows a candidate to cover all segments of the voting population. Finally – and this cannot be understated – nearly 90 percent of Web users plan to vote in this election, according to a recent Media Metrix study.

Targeting. While this high concentration of voters ensures marketing productivity, further effectiveness can be gained with the unique targeting options afforded by online media. Examples of targeting strategies include:

• Geography. Whether using opt-in e-mail, banner ads or both, options exist for selecting based on geography. In a presidential election, this can be particularly effective in that spending can be concentrated on swing states in order to try to win in key battlegrounds. This strategy is equally effective for state and local elections, in order to focus only on affected constituencies.

• Affinity. Placing ads on sites or categories where there is a high potential for affinity with a candidate’s platform can be effective. In the Media Metrix study noted above, Republicans were found to favor business and finance sites, while Democrats leaned toward sites offering free content and services. This strategy allows a candidate to know where to place ads for best results and provides insights on how messaging might best be crafted to leverage viewers’ tastes.

Interactivity. Note the popularity of the “town hall” forums on the campaign trail. The Internet offers the same sort of interaction opportunities. Sending a targeted e-mail message, a viral message from a trusted acquaintance or serving a provocative banner ad all set the stage to let the recipient decide their timing and level of interaction with the message. The more a campaign can inform and involve a voter in the candidate’s message, the greater the chance that the objectives will be met.

Customization. As noted above, online media offer opportunities for targeting. In addition, these media offer the candidate ways to customize the message to the recipient based on the targeting criteria that are employed. A campaign’s marketing team easily can create a variety of creative and copy executions that can speak most convincingly to the different types of voters.

Speed and flexibility. One of the greatest benefits of online marketing is speed. Messages can be constantly refined as results are tracked and responses are received. The speed of change combined with customization makes Internet marketing the most dynamic and flexible channel available to a political campaign. Even in the waning days of a campaign, contenders can employ an amazing number of approaches to achieve desired results. The latest polls can be reviewed in the morning, and new creative that responds to the findings can be up by the end of the day.

Cost-effectiveness. The benefit that ties the others together is cost-effectiveness. Viral campaigns, for example, cost very little to execute but can have a dramatic effect. E-mail is generally less expensive and is faster than direct mail. Banners can be cost-effective, if served in a pay-for-performance environment, whereby the campaign gets exposure to a great number of voters but pays only for those who respond to the banner and visit the candidate’s Web site.

Further cost efficiencies might be gained by an impromptu affiliate program, whereby groups or associations might be willing to host their chosen candidate’s message on their Web sites to provide additional exposure at little or no cost to the campaign.

As the Internet evolves, it will become an increasingly integral component of political campaigning at all levels. As the percentage of Web-enabled Americans continues to rise, with a greater adoption of wireless advertising and with the eventual mainstream application of broadband technology, the Internet will be used in ways barely imaginable today. But given the advantages online advertising already offers, it is the channel that provides the best opportunities for succes

• John Ardis is vice president of marketing at ValueClick, West Lake Village, CA.

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