Political warfare is increasingly fought on the internet, where campaigns stockpile words and launch ‘Google bombs' to capture the hearts and minds of voters.
The battlefield is now larger than ever, with the internet on the brink of eclipsing newspapers to become the second largest source of election news. With 41 per cent of media consumed from the web, online advertising has established itself as a significant line item in the campaign budget. The best campaigns in the US spend 10 per cent or more of their media budgets online.
Campaigns started using display advertising about 10 years ago, usually with a simple box on the front page of newspaper websites. These days, paid search advertising represents about 50 per cent of the total online advertising market, with Google dominating. Last year, Bob McDonnell's successful gubernatorial campaign in Virginia spent over $100,000 on search words alone.
Google AdWords were used during the UK general election campaign, but the Conservatives had been using paid search advertising for a few years. In 2009, they bought ‘James Purnell' moments after the work and pensions secretary resigned from Gordon Brown's cabinet so that anyone searching for the story would see a Tory advert.
An American firm is now transforming online advertising warfare into precision geo-targeting. CampaignGrid has developed the first and only online advertising platform to enable campaigns to target potential supporters with online ads at the micro level, based on a detailed understanding of individuals, their geographic locations and specific patterns of web use.
The Washington-based company created a database matching the national voter file with consumer data information. Then it overlays static IP address maps and census maps to analyse neighbourhood-level data to literally pinpoint potential supporters. Using this information, the company then finds these people on the web using internet cookies.
Working with a number of conservative organisations including the Republican Party, CampaignGrid is able to access the cookies of their visitors to track the whereabouts of millions of people as they move around the internet. The technology enables a campaign to meet the most likely supporters again and again in the various places they visit online, targeting and retargeting them with highly precise messaging, donation requests and GOTV notices. This retargeting approach dramatically increases click-through rates (about twice the rate of traditional display advertising), often landing prospective voters on a campaign's webpage to harvest new supporters and donors.
These are similar fundamentals to the micro-targeting techniques used offline by the Republicans and Democrats in the last few years. Microtargeting allows campaigns to identify potential supports and target them with specific messages, based on consumer behaviour, attitudes, comprehensive demographic data, vote history and political affi liation. But the CampaignGrid model actually takes it one step further because it is dynamic and works in real time.
Once a campaign launches an online ad blitz, the company uses fancy algorithmic conversion formulas to identify the best performing messages. With that information, it continuously optimises the ad buys. A robust campaign will have more than ten different ad formats, including multiple purpose ads that incorporate video as well as buttons for joining social networking sites.
For the candidates that used this technology during the 2008 election cycle in the US, 90 per cent of the traffic to their websites was the result of the platform's online advertising, and 87 per cent of the 80 campaigns that used the technology won their races.
Clearly UK political parties are switched on to the potential of online advertising, and this technology is not limited by geographical boundaries or the budgets of individual MPs in the UK. Of the 100 races that are using CampaignGrid in the US in 2010, some are as small as city council races. An effective online ad campaign could cost as little as $5,000. Many of the successful US campaigns that have used CampaignGrid faced immense funding disadvantages and found online advertising a viable alternative to the airwaves.
So far, there aren't any other online advertising platforms delivering this sophisticated type of micro-targeting, giving subscribers a distinct advantage over those using the prevailing method of simply buying ad words. Strangely, it seems the once impressive ‘Google bomb' is on the verge of becoming obsolete when compared to the laserguided precision of CampaignGrid.