Some expected this would be the election when ad money flooded to the Internet, but as one sales director put it, "This was not the year it all went digital."
Of course, the fact the candidates aren't ponying up for display ads doesn't mean the Internet hasn't already been a huge factor in the 2008 election. As the graph below demonstrates, traffic to the candidates' sites is still trending upwards and totals in the millions each month.
And if there's any doubt as to the importance of the Internet, you need only hear John Edwards comment that the Internet "is the only reason that Barack Obama is not taking public financing" or read the report that "Obama has raised a record-shattering 287 million dollars since the start of the campaign, fueled by more than 1.5 million small donors who give repeatedly over the Internet."
Then there's the news-making viral video "Yes We Can," which has been viewed approximately 15 million times on YouTube (and millions more times at DipDive.com and other video Web sites). Approximate cost to the Obama campaign of this emotional and much-viewed video? Zero for production; zero for distribution.
The role of the Internet in modern politics is not without legitimate questions. For example, Ron Paul has been incredibly popular on the Internet but has earned relatively few votes in the primaries. Still, it's hard to overlook the role the Internet has had, particularly in Obama's campaign. It's been crucial to the candidate going from underdog to front runner, gaining the kind of awareness that delivers huge crowds to his public appearances, and setting records for fundraising.
So given the Internet has been crucial thus far in the 2008 election, why is this not reflected in online ad spending? I believe there are several reasons:
- Political display ads preach to the converted: Obama supporters know how to find BarackObama.com and aren't prone to clicking on a John McCain ad, and the reverse is true for McCain supporters. As the campaign enters the homestretch, I expect the candidates may find interesting uses for rich media, such as rollover video ads that play inspirational messages that energize their base and encourage voter turnout. But with the sides fairly well drawn and only about 10% undecided, there seems little reason for the parties to start spending on online ads.
- Advertising isn't necessary for the candidates to stay top of mind: With banner ad click rates at microscopic levels, the goal of many online display ad campaigns is to keep brands top of mind and not to encourage immediate direct action. Are awareness and consideration really the challenges for McCain and Obama? If the ads won't encourage supporters of either candidate to click and if consumers are already 100% aware of their options, how would banner advertising benefit the campaigns?
- Online advertising lacks control: Ad buyers would disagree, but there is risk with online advertising. Even the most carefully plotted campaign can result in an ad running adjacent to unflattering content or on an inappropriate site. Mitt Romney's campaign made headlines and appeared clueless when banner ads for the pro-family, anti-gay candidate appeared on Gay.com and FanFiction.net, where amateur authors frequently post homoerotic stories of relationships between Spock, Captain Kirk, and Doctor McCoy. With presidential campaigns hinging on reputation, neither candidate can afford a misstep, particular with so little to gain with online advertising.
- Online display ads aren't presidential: There is an inherent problem with the way consumers have come to perceive display advertising--they see it as having low credibility, and it's easy to understand why. As CPMs have dropped, the quality of many ads and advertisers have become embarrassingly bad. When the front page of the site of respected news organization CNN includes debt-reduction ads featuring dancing aliens or video ads purposely disguised to create confusion between advertising and content, it trains consumers to associate the ad medium with brands of poor quality. Recent reports on the top online ad spenders reveal that low-value advertisers such as LowerMyBills, Classmates.com, and free credit reporting services are among the top-spending online advertisers.
The 2008 campaign has laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of Internet marketing: Experiential and viral marketing have worked, and display advertising is but a small component of the marketing mix. The emotional "Yes We Can" video created a huge surge of traffic and attention for Obama without a single ad, and both candidates have relied on Word of Mouth to deliver site visits, campaign contributions, and volunteers. With both traditional and Social Media buzzing about the election and stirring videos creating pull, neither campaign sees value in 468- x 60-pixel banner ads.