As a college student, Ingrid Jackson spends a lot of time on YouTube and Pandora, but for the past few months, her usual mix of music and videos has had some unwelcome company: political ads.
The ads – mostly negative she said – are almost inescapable. Online advertising has exploded in this year’s midterm election and not just in the state’s high profile U.S. Senate race.
A host of legislative, judicial and local races are turning to websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Pandora Radio as a cheap and potent way to reach undecided voters.
Jason Rosenbaum, head of political ads for Google, which owns YouTube, said that YouTube’s premium video ads – those that viewers cannot skip – have sold out for the first time ever in North Carolina.
“In the 2008 cycle, digital advertising existed primarily among the presidential campaign and, even then, on a fraction of the scale it is now,” Rosenbaum said. “This is the first year we’ve seen campaigns across the board (buy the ads), all the way down the ticket, at such high rates – in North Carolina specifically.”
Rosenbaum would not give specifics on how many premium political videos the site had sold. Neither would Pandora or Facebook, and the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t require campaigns to log their spending online as it does with TV ads. But Jim Walsh, CEO of DSPolitical, which was hired last week by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee to target voters in North Carolina’s legislative races in the final days, said he expected the new ads resulting from the partnership to garner 25 million to 30 million views before the election on Tuesday.
TV alone doesn’t cut it
The attraction of digital advertising is obvious. More so than television, online sites let campaigns tailor their ad to the viewer based on information collected and analyzed at various Internet sites, a process known as micro targeting.
“(TV) still is the savory place for candidates to advertise,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “But a campaign only doing that is making a mistake.”
The campaigns of both Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis are using online ads, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to spread their message and energize supporters.
Sean Duggan, vice president of advertising for Pandora Radio, said the demand for Senate ads on Pandora has been high because 2 million voting aged people in the state use the music streaming service.
He declined to say how many ads had been sold in North Carolina but said overall Pandora has run ads from more than 400 political and advocacy campaigns this midterm election – more than double the number in 2012.
Pandora targets voters using its registration data, and its “proprietary political targeting,” Duggan said.
That proprietary targeting includes a listener’s music preferences, ZIP code and whether the musicians he or she loves are most often listened to by Republicans or Democrats, according to Pandora’s website.
Duggan said such targeting “improves our ability to deliver the right ad to the right person at the right time.”
To decide how and whom to target, many political campaigns choose to hire micro targeting firms, such as DSPolitical, HaystaqDNA, Resonate and Target Point. These firms often have a political affiliation.
Andrew Dreschler, who works for HaystaqDNA, said one of the purposes of micro targeting is to find what groups constitute swing voters. Then, the campaign can target that demographic.
“There will be people already with you, so there’s no need to send them persuasion ads. And there will be people who will never be with you, so you don’t want to send them ads,” Dreschler said. He has worked in micro targeting for Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama’s presidential bids.
Mohammad Hamid, chief technology officer for two.42.solutions, a media analytics firm, said his firm processes voter registration files and social, broadcast and print media data for political campaigns. The data is used to understand public opinion on issues like the economy, marriage, jobs and healthcare, and ultimately is used by campaigns to focus on issues they struggle with.
“On Facebook you can define clusters of people – if they went to this school, they like Rand Paul on Facebook, if they tend to post about politics or tend to post about beer, popcorn – we take all that data and identify groups of people,” he said.
“We push that advertising to you and say here’s a positive ad about Candidate A or a negative ad about Candidate B. We can track whether you open it, click it, whether you share it, comment (on) it.”
Ads can capitalize on that information to distill policies to either candidate’s advantage, he said, adding that these targeted messages are likely to stick in swing voters’ minds when they go to the polls.
“If it’s done well, it never feels like stalking,” said Bryan Gernet, the CEO of Resonate, a nonpartisan microtargeting firm. His firm is working on 400 campaigns, twice as many as it worked on in 2012. Instead, he said, “it feels like informative information. It’s trying to connect with you in a way that you would want to connect.”
So should television stations worry? Not yet.
Business Insider projects that TV ad revenue will see a small decline while video advertising will see a 19.5 percent spike through 2016. But TV advertising remains extremely popular for political candidates. It’s essential for reaching voters older than 60 – a reliable voting group – and it’s a more emotional connection, said Justin Coffin, who leads digital services for Capstrat, a Raleigh communications firm.
“When you’re on YouTube you’re waiting to see the initial video,” Coffin said. “You have to sit through that (advertisement) and you’re not in the mindset of what you’re listening to.”
It’s also unclear how effective such online ads are – despite their micro targeting.
Walsh, the CEO of DSPolitical, said that because online ads costs less – on some sites a banner ad can cost 1 cent per impression, or view – he can place more of them. The high volume has “a persuadable effect,” he said.
But John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said digital ads are too new to determine effectiveness.
“We know social media has the ability to reach various nooks and crannies, but we don’t have any evidence yet.”
Or they could listen to Ingrid Jackson.
The student from Wilmington – sounding a lot like TV ad viewers – said she’s been turned off by the online ads because of how negative they are.
And she said they’ve not changed her mind. “It gets redundant,” she explained.