The Digital Election: Money Flowing Online, but Not Persuasion Ads

Spending increases, but TV reigns supreme

While much of the political world is focusing on tomorrow's big debate in Denver, Advertising Week got a taste of the political discussion today at the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Mixx conference. Hosted by Talking Points Memo publisher and editor in chief Josh Marshall, Cheryl Contee of Jack and Jill Politics, Facebook co-founder and New Republic editor in chief Chris Hughes and Engage DC's Patrick Ruffini talked about how the presidency will and won't be decided by the Web. Here are a few highlights:

In this social media era, voters get to participate in campaigns. Managing your message and controlling your message are two different things for campaigns as well as brands, as Cheryl Contee told the Mixx crowd. "Campaigns have to be co-creative with the audience," she said. "Audiences will accept nothing less." It's a nice little sound bite, but also an important lesson that candidates and brands don't always heed. With social media users more likely to co-opt and mock hashtags than adopt them for their intended meaning, brands can get burned. Some may remember McDonald's #McDstories debacle last January (commonly referred to as #McFail). The lesson applies to candidates, too. Mitt Romney learned this the hard way as Democrats hijacked the campaign's #areyoubetteroff hashtag last month. It's more proof if you're going to engage on social, you have to listen as much as you speak. "Unless people embrace the message themselves and send your message back out, it doesn't mean much," Contee said.

More money is flowing to online political ads, but they don't persuade. Patrick Ruffini, a former webmaster for Bush's 2004 campaign, claimed that the Obama campaign has spent roughly $57 million on online ads and is on pace for a digital spend of $100 million, which would represent a remarkable number for the medium (according to estimates, Obama spent about $16 million online in 2008). Yet while digital spend has proven to be exceptional for fundraising, there's no real consensus about its ability to sway voters. "Persuasion advertising online is still very, very unproven in this cycle," Hughes said. Adding to this school of thought, Ruffini noted that "people often underestimate just how easy it is to do a TV ad buy." Combined, the panelists noted this could be a reason why digital spending still remains a fraction of the TV budget, which has long been used to motivate (or scare) those undecided swing-state voters.

Online campaign spending will increase in the coming years, because it has to. Despite the deep-seeded belief in TV among politicos, Contee provided a fairly compelling reason why campaigns spending patterns will inevitably change: demographics. African American and Latinos are heavy social media users (African Americans are particularly heavy Twitter users). "As the nation gets younger and browner, campaigns are going to have to move online," she said. 

As the panel wrapped, perhaps the most salient point of the whole session belonged to Hughes, who put campaign advertising into perspective in our highly partisan electoral system. "This is still a 50-50 country," he said, reminding the panel that Obama won in 2008 with only 53 percent of the nation's vote. "That means political advertising remains very important."