From YouTube to Vine, political campaigns are testing the boundaries of online messaging and advertising — but they are still far more timid than other industries in harnessing the Internet’s potential to reach voters or customers.
Some insurgent candidates are exploring the possibilities as they seek to overcome major financial advantages held by longtime incumbents, but most candidates prefer to play it safe, sticking to tried-and-true ways to reach voters, said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, an audience-driven technology company that helps conservative candidates and causes.
“We have this very finite period in [the] last 100 days where people want to make sure as many people see the message as much as possible, and broadcast has a history of 30 to 40 years that it will move numbers,” he said. “The problem is no one knows how to justify what’s the appropriate media mix to win.”
The numbers are stark.
Campaigns are expected to spend only about 3 percent of their advertising dollars on online ads this year, according to Borrell Associates, a media analysis company. That’s just a fraction of the 19 percent of ad budgets that other industries will dedicate to online ads, according to Joline McGoldrick, director of research at Millward Brown Digital.
Analysts said there are plenty of reasons for the difference, including a lack of politically oriented online ad people and the different mission that political ads cater to compared to what most companies are doing. In politics, television is seen as a way to reach undecided voters, while the Internet is viewed as a tool to encourage already committed supporters to get more involved.
However, Mr. Moffatt, who served as the digital director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said that continuing to invest more heavily in TV makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy that TV gets greater results.
“I don’t agree digital [ads] can’t make a difference, because people aren’t watching live television,” he said. “But if you spend $1 million on TV and $10,000 on online [ads], of course TV worked more.”
Part of the danger for campaigns and others who rely on broadcast ads is that their audience is increasingly avoiding commercials.
A report from January found that 1 in 3 people didn’t watch live TV over the previous week other than sports. The study, sponsored by Google, Targeted Victory and the left-leaning digital media consulting group Well & Lighthouse, also found that more than half of those who use prerecorded TV services like TiVo or DVR skip the commercials all the time.
One difficulty campaign advertisers face is that online audiences require a different approach.
Ms. McGoldrick said politicians will need to design web-only content, not just repurpose TV spots for YouTube.
She said the Internet lends itself to longer, 90-second videos that those who already support the candidate will sit through, or short 10-second hits to keep up name recognition.
Ms. McGoldrick also said campaigns may be spending less on digital campaigning because those who are good at it tend not to be the kinds of political or ideological types that get involved in campaigns.
“It seems totally talent- and comfort-driven. Only a small number of professionals actually know how to do that type of stuff,” she said.
Even at just 3 percent of ad spending, online buys are much higher this year than they were in the 2012 campaigns. And analysts expect another big boost heading into the 2016 campaign cycle.
Online campaign spending is expected to reach almost $1 billion, or 7.7 percent of total ad spending, in 2016, according to the Borrell report.
In addition to increasing spending for online ads, candidates are also getting involved in online campaigning earlier in the process, said Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at Rising Tide Interactive, which does digital work for Ready for Hillary.
“We’ve seen campaigns really getting started with it a lot earlier in the cycle,” she said. “It used to be it was tough to get these folks’ attention with two or three months left in the campaign. Now we’re working with people 24 months before.”
Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, said David Brat’s upset win in a GOP primary earlier this year over former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor with a much smaller budget may have caused a “minirevolution” in political spending, encouraging others to look into more grass-roots advertising on the Internet.
“That really did rivet people’s attention when Eric Cantor got knocked out after having spent a million or more in advertising, and his competitor hardly spent anything,” he said. “That really shook people into believing they need to put a little more time and effort into the greatest communication channel of all, which is the Internet.”
As consumers become increasingly comfortable with getting news and information from online sources, Mr. Borrell said he expects campaigns to embrace using online ads to reach undecided voters.
“I think you will see most of that trickle into social media,” he said. “That seems to be where the greatest political influence is anyway. You want to vote for somebody who is like you and reflects your values. That’s really what social media is all about.”
While he doesn’t think TV will be replaced as the main influencing tool in campaigns in the next 10 years, he does see campaigns blending TV and online together. For example, he suggested a TV spot that shows a conservative candidate as a family man, playing football with his kids. They all fall down, at which point the ad directs people online to see how the story ends.
“I think the campaigns of the future are going to be a mix of a little television intended to seed all the activity that occurs on the Internet,” he said.