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Campaigns find creative ways to target voters on the Net

Paul Demko//October 6, 2010

Campaigns find creative ways to target voters on the Net

Paul Demko//October 6, 2010

After Target Corporation contributed $150,000 to a political organization that’s supporting Republican Tom Emmer in the governor’s race, Alliance for a Better Minnesota went online to stir up outrage.

The liberal advocacy group bought Facebook ads decrying Target’s support for a candidate who strongly opposes legalizing gay marriage. Those ads appeared on the Facebook pages of roughly 7,000 Target employees in the state of Minnesota and 56,000 nationwide.

The response, according to the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), was impressive. The ad received roughly 230,000 page views and resulted in more than 5,000 individuals taking some kind of action, such as indicating that they “like” the spot.

Not long after the ad campaign began, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote a letter to employees apologizing for the decision to contribute to the Emmer-aligned organization. Denise Cardinal, ABM’s executive director, argues that there was a direct correlation between the Facebook ads and the company’s backpedaling.

“I personally believe that it was that direct contact with Target employees that led the CEO of Target to issue an apology to his employees,” Cardinal said. “It seemed to me that what he was reacting to was the noise being made by his own employees.”

As the Target episode shows, online political advertising is playing an increasingly important role in campaign marketing. That’s not surprising, given how much voters have come to rely on the Internet for political information. A study released last year by the Pew Research Center, for instance, determined that 74 percent of Internet users went online during the 2008 campaign seeking information about politics.

“If you do not have a presence there, it would be like not organizing an entire region of the state,” Cardinal said. “It would be unthinkable.”

Since 2008, the number of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates utilizing online advertising has increased by 800 percent, according to Google. A recent study by Borrell Associates, a research and consulting firm, determined that the amount of money spent on digital ad buys has doubled – to $44.5 billion – since the last election cycle.

Andrew Roos, a political ad strategist with Google, argues that the Internet can uniquely help campaigns reach out to voters when politics is foremost on their minds, most notably through ads linked to search engine queries.

“It’s capturing people right when they’re thinking about the issue or the topic,” Roos said. “That’s what’s so exciting about it.”

Some candidates are making particularly novel use of the Internet. During the Minnesota State Fair, for example, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign utilized “geo-targeting” to focus on individuals attending the gathering. More than 12,000 potential voters received an ad on their mobile phones warning that her DFL opponent wants to raise taxes on state fair foods and beverages.

“For folks who have their iPhone right there and they’re purchasing a beer, there’s no better way to connect,” said Sergio Gor, Bachmann’s campaign spokesman. “It’s in the moment, as opposed to a mailing that arrives four days later.”

Jim Meffert, who is seeking to oust freshman U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, has made extensive use of ads through both Facebook and Google to target voters in the Third Congressional District. Kate Monson, Meffert’s communications director, says that the medium allows the DFL campaign to access precise data on who’s clicking on the ads and which messages are connecting with voters.

“It’s pretty comprehensive what you can track in terms of the performance of those ads,” Monson said.  “You can change them on the fly. … In terms of content and the message, you have a lot of instant control over that.”

Two years ago, Monson worked on Elwyn Tinklenberg’s campaign in the 6th Congressional District. She recalls that web ads were a much smaller piece of the campaign’s marketing plan in that election.

“The Web has really matured between last cycle and this cycle,” she said. “A lot of people were still wary about whether they could be effective.”

Of the three principal gubernatorial candidates, Independence Party nominee Tom Horner has created the most extensive digital-advertising campaign. His ads targeting potential Minnesota voters can be seen on websites both political and otherwise. Lately, the IP nominee has been utilizing shorter versions of his television ads in Web spots.

Matt Lewis, Horner’s communications director, estimates that more than 5 percent of the campaign’s advertising budget is now going toward digital buys.

“Necessity breeds invention,” Lewis said, noting that Horner began the campaign with virtually no name recognition or donor base. “Just coming from the starting point we were coming from, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we weren’t trying new things constantly.”

For some candidates, online is the only option available. Joel Demos is the GOP-endorsed challenger in the 5th Congressional District, and a massive underdog in the DFL-dominated area. Incumbent Rep. Keith Ellison won re-election two years ago with more than 70 percent of the vote. Demos had barely $1,000 in the bank at the end of the last campaign finance filing deadline.

In recent months, the GOP challenger has created a series of irreverent video ads and posted them on youtube in hopes of generating attention. One of the spots features Demos attempting to drag a monster truck across a parking lot, symbolizing the daunting electoral task he faces. The spot got picked up by the conservative website Hot Air and was highlighted by the Washington Post. As of this week, it had been viewed almost 30,000 times.

“If there’s a trick to making something viral, we don’t know it,” admitted Jack Tomczak, Demos’ campaign manager. “We just try to put something out that’s relevant to the discussion, unique and entertaining.”

Even so, Tomczak admits there’s no substitute for television. He says the campaign is seeking to run its first TV spot during the Minnesota Vikings game on Monday night. But for that to happen, more contributions will be needed.

“We think that will give us some credibility,” Tomczak said. “We’re trying to get there. We’re begging everybody.”

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