(Lack of) Speed kills (a campaign)

John Roland Contributor

Barack Obama rode a Twitter and Facebook infused wave of support all the way to the White House. Before the scream, Howard Dean’s net roots support propelled him to improbable frontrunner status in the 2004 Democratic primary. Even Bob Dole had a website way back in 1995. Certainly, the Internet has changed political communications. But, one key ingredient to a political campaign hasn’t changed much or adapted to the Internet age – television advertising. Given the divided nature of the country and the competitive nature of politics these days, that’s pretty noteworthy.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. There are over 300 million people living in the United States. But, over the last 10 years, the political course of this Nation has been determined by a comparatively tiny handful of people in two states – Florida and Minnesota.

In the fall of 2000, the world watched as our cliffhanger presidential election went into a 36-day overtime in the state of Florida. In the end, after a lengthy legal fight and an exhaustive counting and recounting of the more than 5.8 million votes cast, then-Governor George W. Bush captured Florida’s 25 electoral votes with an unbelievably slim winning margin of 537 ballots. The path of our country was altered significantly by the power of a few hundred ballots in one state.

Similarly in 2008, the hard-fought U.S. Senate contest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes resulted in a razor thin margin between U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and challenger Al Franken. Just 312 votes separated the two candidates. After months of legal maneuvering that extended six months into 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court certified Al Franken as that state’s next U.S. senator. Franken’s victory briefly gave Democrats a filibuster-proof 60 vote majority in the senate, seemingly clearing away for President Obama’s agenda to sail through that chamber.

Every vote does count. With today’s Internet technologies, the debate between two candidates is sped up and can be unrelenting. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other new communications tools have made it very easy for candidates to quickly respond to the changing issue environment, attacks from opponents or news of the day. Every minute matters, particularly in the late stages of the campaign when those last crucial undecided voters make up their mind.

Yet, the one area where the vast majority of campaign dollars are spent – television advertising – has not adapted to the Internet age. A Borrell Associates report projects political advertising spending to reach $4.2 billion in 2010. Though, for the most part, those :30 second TV spots that are so critical to the success of a candidate are still being distributed with the same processes that have been employed for decades.

When a campaign is ready with a commercial, most are still using a time-consuming process to get that ad to the right station in the right market. By creating tapes that are sent via FedEx or using a cumbersome satellite process to distribute campaign ads, candidates are often at the mercy of others when attempting to get their urgent messages out to voters.

Would a modern campaign choose to send a press release to a television news outlet by using the U.S. Postal Service or even a fax machine? Of course not. Nearly every facet of campaign communications – press releases, statements, fundraising pitches, alerts to supporters – has moved online. But, campaigns haven’t been able to apply the same speed and efficiency to television advertising. Until now.

In 2010, forward-thinking campaigns are using a secure, high-speed Internet channel to manage and distribute their television commercials. When coupling the powerful new production and editing technologies with specialized, Internet-based distribution of TV ads, this may be the first cycle where smart campaigns are able to create an ad to respond to an attack and have it aired on key TV stations in a matter of hours. No more waiting for someone else to arrange the satellite time, shuttle tape and shuffle paper when you need to deliver the spot. Campaigns can now automate or eliminate more than a dozen steps, from ad production to airing, that slow down the delivery of a crucial message.

In today’s divided political environment, gaining a competitive advantage over your opponent may make the difference of several hundred votes on Election Day. You never know, it could even change the course of history.

John Roland is CEO of Extreme Reach, a leading provider of video advertising distribution solutions based in Needham, Massachusetts.