Obama’s got one. So does Hillary. As does McCain. John Edwards has a good one. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Bill Richardson also each have one.
It will come as no surprise that all the major 2008 presidential candidates have websites this election cycle. While they are not all of the same quality and some have way more bells and whistles, the sites carry news, video clips and the all-important areas for donations. What is surprising is how well the candidates have harnessed the power of the Internet and what tracking data can do to help their victory. And while the candidates gear up for an astonishingly early election season, it also means marketers and affiliate marketers can take advantage of the interest in this political period to further their cause or add a few ducats to their sales. But challenges still lay ahead.
The Internet as a political platform is not new – just look at the various blogs that have sprouted up since the 2004 presidential election, not to mention the various other new conduits for candidate conversation such as podcasts, user-generated video and cell phone text messaging. Remember that Howard Dean was the first – then virtually unknown – candidate to blog in 2003. This season candidates have more ways to get their talking points out.
Performance marketing network Performics in fact, recently completed a survey that said 42 percent of Americans will seek more information on the 2008 elections from the Internet.
“Campaigns have embraced Internet strategies to stay competitive,” Alexis Rice, project director of CampaignsOnline.org, says. Not only campaigns, but also mass-audience destinations have launched political areas such as MySpace.com’s Impact Channel, where users can drag candidate ads onto their own MySpace pages.
A Burst Media survey found that more than 20 percent of likely voters have actually already gone to a presidential candidate’s website. Of those, one-quarter have clicked on a candidate or advocacy group’s online advertisement. The study also found that use of the Internet to understand the positions of candidates outpaces all other forms of media. A quarter of likely voters said that going online was the best method to learn about the issues, which beat out TV (21 percent), newspapers (17 percent), radio (7 percent), magazines (4.4 percent) and other paper material (3.3 percent).
Back in 2000, before the dot-com bust, pundits and publications made fun of most candidates’ websites, singling out their old information, lack of transaction abilities and their stupefy-ingly bland sense of Web design. Today, just like outdated ASCII art or “site of the day” home pages, political sites have seriously evolved. Now the candidates and the third-party companies that help their digital campaigns are more than savvy; they are refreshingly cutting-edge and Web 2.0 in their approach.
The amount of money being spent and raised online for the elections is also evolving – albeit a little more slowly. Although PQ Media predicts the online campaign ad spend will top $40 million this cycle – up from $29 million in 2004 – it is still dwarfed by the $2 billion to be spent on TV ads alone. And while 38 percent of registered voters received telephone calls from campaigns in 2006’s midterm election push, only 15 percent got email from the candidates, according to Pew Research Center. Advocacy website MoveOn.org raised upward of $28 million in 2006 – the majority of that through online donations. The Center for Responsive Politics measured more than $100 million in online fund-raising by election day. Still it seems a drop in the bucket compared with the $2.6 billion in total 2006 fund-raising.
It may not be huge, but the revenue stream from online is worth tapping into. Candidates for House and Senate seats in 2006 were pleasantly surprised by how much they raised via the Internet. Democrat Joe Sestak earned a House seat in part from the nearly $900,000 he received in Internet donations; $88,000 of that from a single email blast. Democratic advocacy group Act- Blue touts the fact – in big numbers on its home page – that it has received $19,918,240 (at press time) through online donations since 2004. Not to be undersold, the John Kerry campaign in 2004 claimed it owed $80 million of its campaign funds to donations made via the Internet.
While no candidate is likely to refuse money from Internet donations, the biggest realization the Republican and Democratic parties have made – the Democrats more so because they were so challenged by muddled messages in 2004 – is that data is king. Since around 2001, the Democrats, after being demoralized by their defeat, have become conscious of the fact that the GOP simply had better voter data.
One result is that the 2008 democratic candidates have sleeker websites. Another is the Democratic National Committee hired Plus Three, a “progressive” digital marketing firm to build out a database of voters.
The data that Plus Three is going after is basically the most detailed demographics it can get by law; most urgently, email addresses, phone numbers, income and birth dates. Plus Three and the Republican counterpart – Voter Vault – together hold information on more than 165 million folks in their respective hard drives. The most coveted are email addresses because, as Plus Three states, it can mount email campaigns for a fraction of the cost of phone campaigns or TV and print advertising.
With the data at the ready, campaigns can send email blasts as news happens. Following on the heels of John Edwards’ morning announcement that his wife’s cancer had returned, an email went out that afternoon with a personalized message to all who had registered at Edwards’ website. He was the first presidential candidate to join Twitter (the mini-blog social network) and the first to announce his candidacy online by way of YouTube. On his website, Edwards has all the tech bells and whistles – with profiles on social sites 43Things.com, Bebo.com, blip.tv, Capital Hill Broadcasting Network, Care2. com, Collective.com, Essembly, del.icio.us, Facebook, Flickr, gather.com, hi5, LiveJournal. com, Metacafe, MySpace.com, Ning. com, PartyBuilder.com, Revver, TagWorld, vSocial, Xanga.com, Yahoo360 and YouTube. Edwards also has a Store button on the home page where T-shirts, buttons, mugs and stickers get their showing. Additionally there is a download area for podcasts and RSS feeds.
The week after Edwards broke the news about his wife, ActBlue reported the Edwards campaign received $540,000 through online donations. However, fellow democrat Hillary Clinton raised more than $1 million in online donations the week after her husband, former President Clinton, asked for contributions at the end of February.
The intersection of this highly charged political election and widespread technological advancements is something that marketers can also take advantage of.
CEO of search engine Powerset, Barney Pell, points out three examples of opportunities for online marketers: “First, a bookseller could create a special section on their site that organizes books according to political topics, issues and personalities,” he says. “Second, a company specializing in clean and environmentally friendly products could create a website focused on these issues,” adding that they could then track what the candidates have said or how they voted and then link the issues back to the company’s products. “Third,” he says, “companies could take a stand on issues or back candidates from social media properties. This level of authenticity, while risky, can connect with target audiences in a whole new way.”
Not to be discounted, search marketers can grab ballot-fever by the handle and utilize the “mind-set” of the voter. “Search marketing is a fantastically underutilized area for political candidates to demonstrate their qualifications beyond the status quo,” says Todd D. Malicoat, a search consultant who runs the site Stuntdubl.com. “When someone does a search for a candidate’s name they are volunteering their attention versus the normal approach of a candidate interrupting a voter for their attention.” He says that the information found through search can “actually sway a voter’s opinion” because they are infinitely more receptive to the information. He adds “the difficult opportunity for search marketers is mostly in finding a way to market themselves to the candidates by demonstrating how valuable these services could be to a candidate’s campaign.”
Whatever a marketer’s commitment to showcase political topics or products, Gary Marcoccia, Marketing Director of affiliate network AvantLink, suggests choosing something you’re passionate about. “This makes it easy to maintain and add content on a regular basis,” he says. “Publishers should shoot for 20 to 30 posts a month and think hard about including keywords in the headline and a couple of times in the post itself.” He says, for example, on an eco-friendly blog, a publisher could write a post on how to save energy in the home, categorize it appropriately and then send the traffic on to a merchant that sells low-energy light bulbs.
The other changing face of campaigning in the digital age is commerce versus community building. Hillary Clinton’s site has a good number of videos with her message on her site, as does Barack Obama’s site. But McCain, Mitt Romney, Clinton and Richardson have no online stores.
What the major candidates lack in storefronts, they gain in grassroots efforts online. Democratic-leaning Party- Builder.com lays claim to 10,000 virtual volunteers since September of last year and its Republican counterpart MyGOP says it has “thousands” of online volunteers as well. The Edwards campaign has its OneCorps, a virtual volunteer network that plans and executes grassroots Edwards house parties and serves as a platform for launching other campaign actions. Gone are the days when simply having a website was enough. “The organizational aspect is transformative,” says David Plouffe, a political consultant. When Maryland candidate for comptroller Peter Franchot emphasized his presence on MySpace and Facebook, his campaign got 80 percent of its volunteers from there.
When Maryland candidate for comptroller Peter Franchot emphasized his presence on MySpace and Facebook, his campaign got 80 percent of its volunteers from there.
In a month his volunteers – most of them obtained through online efforts – made 15,000 calls and distributed 50,000 campaign flyers. Franchot did win. Online experts have called this effect the “new virtual playing field.”
Online Voter Army
The site has pulled in 10,000 volunteers since September 2006. The Republican National Committee’s counterpart, MyGOP.com, also claims “thousands of people” and shows Web pages chartering each individual volunteer’s fund-raising progress. When Democrat Ned Lamont ran for Connecticut Senate he set up a space on his website where supporters could type in personal endorsements or “virtual postcards” and send them from the site. He got 25,000 visitors to do this. He beat incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Another lesson that campaigns still need to learn is the power of performance marketing. As noted, online stores on candidate sites – at least at this stage of the election cycle – carry inconsistent content. More importantly, the stores are mostly populated by products sold by third-party companies, which are either mom-and-pops or come from the direct marketing world.
John Edwards’ store, for example, is run by The Progressive Store, which is owned by Keith Shirey in the Los Angeles area. Shirey, a former janitor who touts the fact that his political buttons were banned on eBay, also sells stickers for Obama, Gore, Kucinich and Clinton. However, he doesn’t offer links to his store like Tigereye Design does. Tigereye sells Obama, Clinton, Richardson, Kucinich and Edwards campaign products and offers cut-and-paste link code for anyone to put a store link on their site.
As mentioned, the Republicans had made great and precise use of data before the 2000 election. Their Voter Vault database is drawn from voter registration and from other public and private records. What shakes out is a potential for the database to have hundreds of pieces of demographic information on every single voter, such as what cars they drive, what churches they go to, what magazines they subscribe to, what political organizations they give money to and even whether they hunt or fish. The data is run through a computer model and a prediction is made about how they are likely to vote. These folks can then be targeted with very specific messages, be that via letter, phone call, email, TV or other collateral. This form of “microtargeting” essentially won the GOP the White House in 2000, pundits say.
Democratic online efforts are motivated by trying to match what the GOP has built. Democratic online volunteer campaigns are aimed at amassing a virtual army of advocate foot soldiers. Voters with personal websites and affiliates can take advantage of the political season by linking to the candidates’ stores; however, there is no commission. If education and awareness are important to the affiliate, a candidate store section would not be out of place on a site selling retail goods or a site or blog that is opinion-based. If an affiliate runs a travel site or coupons, the links might be out of place. Certainly MySpace and other user-generated social sites are an ideal place for store links. One could even link to the candidates’ donation pages where visitors can pledge funds from the bare minimum to the maximum allowed by federal law. Throwing in a few well-chosen keywords at the new areas of a website could increase traffic overall and may generate a sale or two.
“Studies in the retail sector, where users who are served ads get a cookie placed on their machine ” provide a glimpse into how effective online ads can be in planting ideas in peoples’ heads that shape future behavior,” said political blogger and executive director of the Internet Advocacy Center in Washington, D.C., Alan Rosenblatt. Colin Delany of political blog e.politics.com notes, however, that “what the Internet excels at is relationship-seeking and relationship-building,” meaning those who seek out a candidate or sign up for a candidate’s RSS feed are probably already followers of that campaign. But once a potential supporter is in the door, so to speak, the campaign can leverage email and viral messages to help solidify support and donations. The next big step is to track them and target them as well as the online marketing sector has with analytics and what the Republicans did so well with microtargeting.
The multimedia aspects of a candidate’s site have proven popular and engaging. Burst Media reports that 50.7 percent of likely voters stated they would watch a video clip on a candidate website that features him or her talking about the issues. That number held for all age groups, including 55 and older. A quarter of voters said that they would hear a podcast by a candidate outlining his or her platform. Podcast listeners in the 18- to 34-year-old category scored far higher on that question than other age groups.
Right now, the bigger blogs such as RedState or Daily Kos may pull in a wider audience demographically on the Web but are still small numbers compared with the reach of a single campaign email blast. And with a solitary email, Rosenblatt notes a campaign can reach a whole array of donors who give small amounts – $25 to $50 – who wouldn’t otherwise give off-line. As one campaign finance expert noted, “It’s the only way you get a million people to each give you $10 on the same day.”