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Legacy Content / POLITICS

How Much Should Candidates Court The Web?

A Recent Suggestion From Newt Gingrich Probably Aims Too High, Ad Buyers Say

May 24, 2010

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich is advising his party's candidates to spend big on new media campaigns this fall. It's a bold suggestion that could result in unprecedented victories -- or waste precious campaign resources, ad buyers say.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour earlier this month, Gingrich urged candidates to use online ads, social networking and blog outreach in midterm election campaigns so they can have a "real conversation that's a lot more than a 20-second sound bite or a two-minute story."

"We advise every candidate to have as big a budget for new media as you have for radio and television," Gingrich said.

 

Beltway ad buyers, however, say allotting larger portions of campaign budgets to new media may be premature and ineffective. "New media is very important, but it's not more important than television," said Amy Niles Gonzalez, president of MSHC Partners, a Democratic communications firm.

While Obama's new media tactics in the 2008 presidential campaign were widely hailed, out of the $750 million his team spent during the campaign, only $27 million was devoted to online ads. Meanwhile, about $245 million was spent on television ads, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Television will always have a role. What we've seen with new media is it rapidly going from almost nothing to now being a very significant and mandatory part of the plan," said Roger Alan Stone, CEO of Advocacy Data, a new media consulting firm in Washington. He added, though, that in 2008, "it was a very rare campaign that was spending more than 3 to 4 percent of their budget on new media."

Stone suggests that campaigns allot 30-35 percent of their ad budgets to new media. Gonzalez puts the figure a bit lower: "The 5 to 10 percent range probably makes sense for most folks as an overall guideline."

Republican Scott Brown, in his successful Senate bid in Massachusetts, dedicated 10 percent of his budget, $230,000 total, to online advertisements, notably Google's AdWords, resulting in more than 60 million ad views. He also maintained a high profile on social networking sites.

Democratic nominee Martha Coakley waged a less aggressive campaign over the Internet, did not use AdWords, and in the last three weeks of the race posted to her Facebook page and sent out news on Twitter only half as often as Brown, giving the Republican "a clear advantage in the actions and sizes of his social media communities," according to an Emerging Media Research Council report.

Brown's use of AdWords illustrates one of the biggest advantages of new media over traditional media: targetability. Whether Internet users typed "Martha Coakley" or "Scott Brown" into the Google search bar, Brown popped up as the top sponsored link.

"The new thing we're able to do is actually targeting ads down to a specific voter," Stone said. "So if you have a list of the Democrats in the district, we can now run banner and Internet ads to them and just to them, or just to the infrequent voters or whatever. For the first time it gives you the targetability of phones, mail and e-mail, and that's just something you just can't do even with the most highly capable cable box."

The number of campaigns that employed new media strategies and finished victorious is growing, leading many candidates to incorporate new media in their campaigns this year -- even if only through a few channels.

"Our advice to conservatives is to think big about their new media efforts as it is the best way to have a direct conversation with voters without the filter of the mainstream media," Gingrich communications director Joe DeSantis told National Journal over e-mail. "As more and more people get their news online and traditional media shrinks, a large investment in new media will pay huge dividends."

But traditional media doesn't appear to be shrinking in the slightest, according to John McLaughlin, CEO of McLaughlin & Associates, a national survey research and strategic services company.

"When you're talking about a general election and you're trying to reach those voters who are undecided, the independents, the ones who flip -- they're not paying any attention to political media targeted through the new media, and it gets harder to find them," McLaughlin said. "You've got to communicate where their eyeballs are. To still capture the broader audiences, the masses, you still have to buy TV."

"It's not an 'either-or' in my mind," said Gonzalez. "It's an integration of messaging across channels -- radio, TV, print, digital. I don't foresee one overwhelming the other. It's all about the integration."

So what does this range of opinion imply for Gingrich's push for big-budgeted new media campaigns?

Gonzalez's advice: "If the candidate is in an expensive media market, like New York, and they are a smaller race, it's more efficient for them to work online. If they're in a smaller media market, where the voters are likely TV watchers -- and TV is relatively inexpensive -- it makes more sense in those markets to focus on TV and then complement selectively with online tactics."

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