Hunting Where The Ducks Are: Online Banner Ads in 2002
by Becki Donatelli, Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions

   
         
    More than half of the American population is now online, and political organizations and candidates are just beginning to reach this growing online community. While most do a good job with websites and e-mail lists, few are using the opportunity to proactively bring political messages to this population. Just as candidates learned to advertise on radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s, candidates today must learn to go hunting where the ducks are and use online banner ads.    
    The 2002 elections featured a number of tight Senate races that went down to the wire. In an effort to tip the scales by reaching out to the online community, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) conducted an ambitious banner ad campaign with America Online. More than 13 million impressions were delivered, bringing Republican comparison ads to the online audience.    
    While it is difficult to determine the full impact of this program, the sweeping success of the Republican strategy on Election Day shows banner ads can be a useful campaign advertisement in tight races. In more than half of the races where the NRSC bought banner ads, the Republican candidate won. This program also demonstrates the future potential with more investment in banner ad campaigns, as well as several important lessons to be learned:    
    High Click Through Rates On News Sites: Online users who go online for news were most receptive to candidate comparison ads, as shown by high click through rates on CNN.com, CBS News on America Online, the AOL Election Guide, US and World Hourly News Summary on America Online and AOL.com Business News. These users are more likely to be active, politically aware and are likely voters, which is an important factor in the strong click through rate across the placements with news sites.    
    Success with Non-Traditional Websites: NASCAR.com ads comparing Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles experienced one of the strongest click through rates, which is an indication that ads can reach swing voters through these non-traditional channels. While news websites are predominantly visited by a demographic that is already more inclined to be informed and vote, websites such as NASCAR.com offer an opportunity to reach voters who might not otherwise receive political messages. These visitors are going to sites such as NASCAR for other purposes – predominantly entertainment – but bringing a political message to them offers an opportunity to speak to this audience. Undecided voters are visiting websites for information other than political information or news. By bringing a political message to this group, banners ads are able to reach out to key undecided and swing voters.    
    Broadcast Message Shows Strong Results: The run of AOL E-mail Inboxes is a close comparison to a broadcast message, as this message is not targeted to a specific demographic group. However, there was still a strong 0.5% click through rate on these banner ads. This shows that broadcasting a comparison message without sending it specifically to a targeted demographic can be a very effective way to broadcast a political message and reach a broad cross section of voters.    
    In much the same way as television ads are targeted to a specific demographic, most of the banner ads were targeted to demographic groups of online users. For example, banner ads in Georgia targeted middle age women. In some cases, this targeting was even more exact than traditional TV advertising, as in New Hampshire, where banner ads were targeted to New Hampshire zip codes, instead of the Boston DMA.    
    Every Opportunity Must Be Used in a Close Election: In a close election, we must utilize every opportunity to reach voters, which means expanding our advertising from traditional media such as TV and radio to reach the growing number of online users. Banner ads allowed Republicans to energize base voters by showing an active online advertising presence. But more importantly, banner ads can bring a political message and show a clear contrast between candidates to undecided and swing voters online. Just a few percentage points in only a few key races would have dramatically changed the story of the 2002 elections from a resounding Republican victory to a Democratic win.    
         
    Contributing Authors: Michael Bassik, America Online; Mark SooHoo, Hockaday Donatelli Campaign Solutions; Steve Castleton.