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May 2020 | by James Desio
It turns out that the Internet does not have infinite capacity. At least not for political ads.
As an increasing number of campaigns and outside groups are finding out, premium space on the web has long been booked. Digital advertising is maturing much in the way television did, as targeting becomes more sophisticated and the definition of a viewer expands drastically.
“Many political strategists don’t think of the Internet as something that can sell out,” said Rob Saliterman, leader of the elections team at Google, which owns YouTube. “But in these smaller states, just as there’s a finite amount of TV inventory, there’s a finite amount of YouTube inventory.”
The more savvy players in the coming midterm elections made pre-emptive strikes to ensure ad placement when it matters most.
In June, Tim Lim, the president of Precision Network, a digital media buyer for Democrats, began purchasing ad space from premium online vendors — Google, Yahoo, Pandora — in Senate battleground states like Colorado and Iowa.
In July, Robert Willington, the president of Swiftkurrent, a Republican digital marketing company that is working on Scott Brown’s Senate campaign in New Hampshire, purchased “a lot” of the available YouTube inventory in the state for future ads.
And in August, IMGE, a digital advocacy agency handling online strategy for Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, snapped up all available YouTube inventory in Alaska for the final weeks of the Senate race there.
There are two main types of online video ads: those a viewer can skip after just a few seconds, and “reserved buy” ads that run in their entirety before a video begins. The ads that can be skipped are unlimited, but they are sold by auction, meaning that, much as it does in the television marketplace, the price goes up as demand increases closer to Election Day. A 30-second ad of that type, for instance, could cost eight to 10 times as much the week before the November elections as it did in September.
The second type of ad, which cannot be skipped, is often more valuable to campaigns, because viewers are forced to watch all 15 or 30 seconds before they can see the content from their original search. These ads are limited, and campaigns can reserve them in advance — not only locking in a good price, but also ensuring prominent display.
“You have to let your clients know, if you want to have this premium inventory, it will sell out first,” said Alex Skatell, a partner at IMGE. “The other campaigns, your opponent, the ‘super PACs’ — this is where they’re going first with their money.”
Digital ad buyers said pre-video ad space on popular sites like YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and top news outlets was the first content to effectively sell out. Already, there is almost no remaining YouTube inventory for reserve buys — the ads that cannot be skipped — in Alaska, Maine, Montana and New Hampshire, and inventory is increasingly tight in nearly a dozen other competitive states.
“I love the targeting on YouTube. I love how it’s efficient; I love the cost,” said Mr. Willington, who bought much of YouTube’s reserve inventory for the Brown campaign. “It’s a great bang for your buck.”
In a place like New Hampshire — where reaching voters statewide requires buying not only in the New Hampshire television market but also in the Boston, Burlington, Vt., and Portland, Me., markets — digital ads are especially cost-efficient. A campaign can, for instance, target just women ages 18 to 35 who live in the state.
“One of the benefits of the Internet is our ability to execute really precise geographic targeting,” said Peter Naylor, Hulu’s senior vice president of advertising.
And pre-video advertising is not the only online space in demand. Banner ads and home-page takeovers, in which ads from a particular buyer are the only ones prominently displayed on a website’s home page, are also being scooped up. Chris Durant, the digital sales manager at The New Hampshire Union Leader, a top news website in the state, said roughly 70 percent of his home-page takeovers between now and Election Day were booked.
“You are knocking out the competition, and it’s an exclusive spot,” Mr. Durant said.
He added that an outside political group had reserved Nov. 3 and Nov. 4, Election Day, for home-page takeovers.
“Smart campaigns book early, the same way that smart brands book television early,” said Andrew Bleeker, the president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital marketing company. “We reserve most of the inventory for our clients in the spring to make sure something like this isn’t a factor.”
Mr. Lim of Precision Network, who is working with the Democratic House candidate Staci Appel in Iowa, began talking to The Des Moines Register back in August about a home-page takeover, which he reserved for the first two days of early voting in Iowa in September.
“It just shows digital advertising has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and people are planning a lot more in advance,” Mr. Lim said. “If campaigns want that premium space, it requires them to act a lot quicker than they’re used to.”
Many political operatives are focusing more on online strategy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now devoting 10 to 20 percent of each ad buy to digital. Scott Reed, a senior political strategist for the group, said he could track how many people viewed an online ad, “which allows us to both expand our reach and collect some data-rich metrics.”
“It provides us with extensive behavioral and demographic data,” Mr. Reed said. For instance, the group is using online ads to direct viewers to its voter education and mobilization site, voteforjobs.com.
Nonetheless, the Chamber of Commerce recently experienced the downside of the crowded digital airwaves when it discovered that desirable space had already been booked in a few crucial states. “We learned last week that you could not buy digital ads in New Hampshire and Alaska,” Mr. Reed said. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit.”
Mr. Rove’s Crossroads, in part to address concerns from donors that it relied too heavily on television ads in 2012, said it had made a commitment to digital advertising this cycle. It will use polling and market research to figure out which types of spots work best online, invest millions of dollars in 11 states to contact tens of thousands of voters and model an even larger target universe from that data.
In North Carolina, for instance, the group is running television ads attacking Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat. But online, it is complementing those ads with two videos praising her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, as an “education champion,” a message that tested well in focus groups.
In some ways, the digital ads have simply started to mirror the television landscape more closely. According to data from Kantar Media, which monitors television advertising, the top three television stations nationwide in terms of political spots aired from the beginning of September to the first week of October were WMUR in New Hampshire (4,698 spots), WHO in Iowa (4,237) and WSAZ in the West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky triangle (3,476).
WMUR recently brought on a temporary administrative worker to help with the onslaught. Jeff Bartlett, its general manager, said that at times, about 80 percent of the ads in a newscast commercial break were political.
And while the Internet and social media have been a part of many campaigns since 2006, several strategists said they were heartened to see that digital was now a first stop.
Television spending still will far surpass digital spending this cycle, but, anecdotally, several digital media firms said digital spending was claiming a higher percentage of campaigns’ and outside groups’ media budgets than ever before. Borrell Associates, an advertising research firm, estimates that digital spending in 2014 will surpass $270 million, up from just $55.4 million in 2010 — an estimate that some digital media firms caution may be on the low side.
“One of the good things we’re seeing this cycle is it’s not even an afterthought,” Mr. Skatell said. “They’re coming and saying, ‘Let’s do digital,’ and then if there are constraints on TV, they’re coming back again and saying, ‘Let’s buy more digital.’ ”
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