Behind the curtain of daily campaign drama — and just out of view of the public — a tug of war is underway. Inside campaigns across the country, new media consultants and traditional media consultants are debating how to run a modern political campaign. In some cases their philosophical differences morph into struggles for bigger budgets and, sometimes, the very heart of the campaigns themselves. Some new media consultants (Internet folks) see television and other “old” media as archaic and a waste of money. These new media consultants have plans to do everything better on the Web. On the other side of the argument are some traditional media consultants who, after begrudgingly acknowledging the potential of the Web, are sure that nothing can replace the impact of traditional media.
But, like most debates, dig a little deeper and you see that neither side has it completely right.
First, let’s take a look at the Internet-only folks. Their reasoning for ditching TV in favor of the Internet is based largely on targeting. They say (correctly) that the Internet allows for more precise and efficient targeting of advertising than TV. If you want to send a message to a very narrow group of voters in a swing state, you can do it with jaw-dropping efficiency on the Internet. There’s no question that this type of targeting is much harder with television. But, while the Internet does offer incredible targeting, those calling for Internet-only advertising are making two critical mistakes.
Internet-Only Mistake #1: The Internet-only folks’ first mistake involves their portrayal of TV. Often, new media consultants will tell you how much it costs to buy a 30-second spot on “Meet the Press,” or to get a 1,000 points in a major market, and then compare that amount with the cost of a targeted display campaign online. This is misleading. Just as new research and “big data” have changed the Internet, they’re changing television too. The proliferation of channels and the improved understanding of who watches them are revolutionizing the media buying world, meaning there are less-expensive ways to reach your target audience today than there were just a few years ago.
For a little clarity, I turned to Will Feltus, a co-worker at National Media and an innovator in media buying. “For the leading media buyers on the Republican and Democratic side, [television and radio] buys are smarter,” he said. Feltus interviewed numerous campaign managers for his upcoming book, Campaign Manager: Understanding Elections through the Eyes of Political Professionals, and noticed something: “Campaign managers are skeptical about the claims made about the Internet.” It might be that one-sided comparisons between Web and TV buys are feeding that skepticism.
Internet-Only Mistake #2: The second mistake made by Internet-only proponents is their argument (explicitly or implicitly) that targeting is the only purpose of advertising. To a large extent, the Internet vs. TV debate is a proxy for the larger debate about the role of ad campaigns themselves. If you believe that targeting audiences is the Alpha and Omega of all advertising efforts, you’re likely to side with the Internet-only advocates. If, on the other hand, you believe that advertising dictates the themes and affects how we see candidates, you’re likely to be a TV person. Like it or not, television is better at setting broad themes and/or defining candidates. Plus, many voters see television ads as a sign of a campaign’s legitimacy.
Even Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which is considered by many to be the most Internet-focused national campaign thus far, spent over $244 million on broadcast media — compared to $26 million on Internet media.
On the traditional media side of things, the TV-only (or even the TV-mostly) crowd is dwindling. But, as the staunchest of the Luddites recede, there are some traditional media consultants who see the Internet as an adversary — a danger to their income. These folks have their own set of fallacies that they use to put down the Internet.
TV-Only Mistake #1: Their first mistake is arguing that “no one clicks on Internet advertising.” That’s not true. Internet users obviously click on ads. In fact, “cost per click” is the most accepted metric for display (a.k.a. “banner”) advertising, meaning you budget and plan based on actual clicks. Moreover, display ads aren’t the total sum of Internet advertising. Pre-roll video, social media, email lists and other Internet-based advertising don’t require a “click” to send a message. Hopefully this argument will fade as knowledge of how Internet advertising works becomes more widespread.
TV-Only Mistake #2: The second misconception of the TV-only advocates is that you can win a campaign without using the Internet. This may still be true for a few rural congressional districts. But for the most part, if a candidate isn’t on the Web, he’s at a massive disadvantage. If a candidate concedes the Internet campaign to his opponent, that candidate will be out-fundraised, have fewer volunteers and have an inferior communications infrastructure. Furthermore, research has shown that Internet advertising used in concert with TV ads actually enhances voter recall of the TV ads.
But when it comes down to it, neither side of this debate gets to make the call. “This is a decision the campaign managers must make,” as Feltus says.
So what’s a campaign manager to do?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. To effectively message to and target voters, campaign managers must rely on both TV and Internet advertising.
Craig Kirchoff produces and edits both television ads and Web content. He lives in Alexandria, VA.