Book review: learning from the Obama and McCain online advertising campaigns

Campaign ’08: A Turning Point For Digital Media is a slim volume by Kate Kaye, senior news editor at ClickZ, taking an in-depth look at the online advertising used in the 2008 Presidential contest for the primaries and then the general election.

Though the book touches on other aspects of internet campaigning, what makes it stand out from the crowd of competing volumes is its focus on advertising.

It starts with a reminder that there is only one John McCain: the McCain mocked in 2008 for not getting online campaigning is the same McCain who was feted in 2000 for getting online campaigning. Indeed, in many ways it was his 2000 campaign that put online political fundraising on the agenda in the US, just as Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign put online organising on the agenda.

Campaign 08 By Kate KayeHence her warning, “Neither of the two main presidential campaigns can be used as a template for the next time round. For one thing, digital media moves way too far. Just think: search advertising was barely a consideration for the ’04 campaigns, and YouTube didn’t even exist!”

It’s not just the US that moves on: what was a successful online constituency campaign for 2001 would have struggled in 2005, and simply trying to repeat 2005 in 2010 will miss the mark. There are some long-lasting principles (such as being online is not the same as campaigning online) and some core technologies that continue to be crucial, particularly email. However, there are also many new and useful options that has arisen.

The growing number of online avenues is reflected in the growth of staff: Bush’s winning 2004 campaign had seven people on its internet team; Obama’s winning 2008 team had 95.

As Kaye rightly points out though, it wasn’t just that Obama had more staff. Barack Obama was a special candidate who generated huge enthusiasm and support – vital fuel for his successful use of the internet. That gave him one edge over McCain online. Another edge was that McCain was stuck in the 2000 model, seeing the internet as little more than an online ATM to be plundered for funds. Obama’s campaign by contrast took Dean’s innovations in building communities and recruiting volunteers and evolved them one step further.

As a result, Obama’s online advertising had a near ubiquitous “Join Us” message, trying to build online communities and email lists which were then heavily mined for donations but also regularly encouraged to take part in campaign activities.

Overwhelmingly both the McCain and Obama online advertisements were about building the organisation – raising money, acquiring email addresses and so on – rather than about persuading voters. There were some voter registration and get out the vote adverts, but these were the exceptions.

Google was the major beneficiary of these advertising campaigns with 45% of Obama’s online ad spending – and more of McCain’s – going on Google ads. They were often geographically targeted, sometimes to quite fine levels:

Just when it seemed to one media executive assisting in the [Obama] local ad buys that the campaign had satisfied their primary state targeting needs, a cryptic e-mail subject line appeared in his inbox:


Another form of targeting was much less talked: micro-targeting by matching up data from different sources:

“These are the kind of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves,” one interactive political consultant said, alluding to the privacy concerns associated with tapping information like voter history and party affiliation for targeting ads…

Savvy customers are accustomed to advertisers combining information from various sources to better tailor offers to them. However, when advertisers attach data on their shopping habits with info on which party’s primaries they’ve voted in, the dander goes up.

A campaign consultant discussed a 2004 Republican organization that matched voter file data against AOL and Yahoo databases to target ads. The organization provided the vote file information, and the third party data firm ran a match against the registration info and refined the list based on additional criteria such as party affiliation. Then, in the last few days before the election, when those particular users showed up on AOL or Yahoo, they may have been served an ad with a GOTV message.

Although online advertising took place on an unprecedented scale in the 2008 election, the funds allocated to it were still only 6% of those allocated to TV advertising. Kaye suggests part of the reason for the continued dominance of TV advertisements is the financial structure of political consultancy in the US, where consultants came make a commission on TV adverts run by their campaign but not out of online adverts.

Obama’s campaign was so flush with cash that even just 6% was still a large number. It meant advertising extended into such novel areas as appearing within computer games. Unlike McCain’s campaign, the Obama team ran numerous adverts on social networks, a key and often over-looked part of explaining Obama’s success on them. Perhaps the oddest adverts to UK ears would have been those run on the equivalent of 118 118 and other services, where some lucky people heard Obama adverts before being told the phone number for a local plumber.

Despite the Obama campaigning sprawling over so many different outlets, it kept a very integrated approach with online rated right from the top:  “It’s important to stress that McCain’s Web people were savvy in their own right. But they were hampered because they weren’t part of the inner circle. Obama’s Web team, meanwhile, got to sit at the big kids’ table.”

As Dan Solomon puts it in the foreword, “Despite the wiz bang of new gadgets and digital platforms, communications is still a human endeavour. And like all human endeavours, cooperation and initiative make a difference in the outcome”.

The book provides a detailed narrative account of the online advertising campaigns through the primaries, caucuses and general election. It is heavier on description than on analysis, but it poses the right questions for analysis even if not much space is given to considering the possible answers.

Don’t be deceived by the amateurish edge to the typography, slightly repetitive text in places, casual language (such as “info” for “information”) and smattering of typos – this is a book that is packed with useful detail, marshalled with the benefits of years of internet experience. It ends on a particularly practical note, with an Afterword that draws out the lessons from the book for those running for election, but not for President.

Although the book is not available in the UK, you can use Amazon.com to buy Campaign ’08: A Turning Point For Digital Media.

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