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What Advertising Age Got Wrong About the 2010 Elections

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Television may still be king, but an online coup d'état is brewing.

Last month, Advertising Age ran an article entitled "Why Online Advertising Didn't Matter in the 2010 Elections." Their message to campaigns: if you want to win elections, your money should all be going to TV. As to online advertising, unless you're talking about raising money, fuggedaboutit.

While we applaud the boldness of Advertising Age in declaring analog the unequivocal king in a digital world, the article ignores several key facts about how media consumption is changing and how these changes are making online communication with voters an increasingly necessary part of the media mix. We aren't suggesting that statewide candidates forgo their television advertising buys altogether and put $10 million into online ads; rather, we are suggesting that online communication with voters is now and will continue to be a critical part of the media strategy.

Traditional television: in decline
Advertising Age, of course, is not entirely wrong. Television in many ways is still king: the average voter watches more than 30 hours of television per week, and the average household boasts 2.9 televisions on average.

But television advertising's impact ain't what it used to be. More than 40% of households today have a DVR, representing an 18% increase over 2009 in the number of households watching time-shifted TV. DISH and DirecTV together made 33 million households unreachable with local political advertising in 2010.

Online: on the rise
Meanwhile, online video consumption continues to rise, and increasingly has become a substitute for watching traditional television. Today, 84% of Internet users view videos online, and unsurprisingly 22% of such households say they have canceled or cut back TV service in the past 12 months. Fully 64% of adults now say they watch "some" or "most" of their TV online, and that number climbs to 83% for those under 25.

Online video will only continue to take over an increasingly large share of media consumption. More than 39 million Americans watched videos on Hulu in the last year. Last month, Netflix cut a deal to begin offering broadcast primetime programs through its streaming Internet service.

All of which is to say, consultants who think traditional media buys on television alone will win your 2012 campaign should think again. Online communication with voters is an integral part of campaign strategy, not only on its own, but also as an echo chamber that can reinforce traditional television advertising campaigns.

Internet advertising & elections
Barack Obama's 2008 victory should itself be sufficient evidence of the importance of online advertising. But for readers seeking examples from the most recent campaign cycle where online advertising served as a critical component of the media mix, here are a few:

Google Blasts in Virginia: Whether it was Creigh Deeds in the Democratic primary election for Virginia Governor, or Bob McDonnell (R) in the general election, Google Blasts played a starring role in successful Virginia campaigns this cycle.

In his primary win, Deeds used his Washington Post endorsement in ads and targeted northern Virginia's DC suburbs extensively -- blanketing voters in an area where a Post endorsement mattered most. In the general election, McDonnell targeted northern Virginia as well -- especially tech websites in an area where high-tech jobs are most vibrant. In both cases, online advertising helped boost the candidate to victory.

The Special Election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts: On television, Martha Coakely and Scott Brown's ad buys were roughly the same, with Coakley actually having a slight edge: Coakley and the Democratic Party together spent $3.7 million on television, while Brown and the Republican Party together spent $3.1 million.

But sharp differences emerged in online advertising: Brown spent half a million dollars on online advertising to Coakley's less than $100,000. And just before Election Day, Brown's campaign employed Google Blasts to bombard Massachusetts voters online with additional advertising -- and won the race.

South Carolina Governor's Race: When the South Carolina Democratic Party wanted to run a campaign against Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, they had no money for a television advertising campaign. Thus, they created an exclusively online advertising campaign called "Nikki Goes National."

The online-only campaign earned coverage from dozens of news outlets and sent the Haley campaign on defensive, all objectives many media consultants typically claim can only be accomplished using television advertising. But they did all of this without spending a dime on television.

The future is multi-channel
We're not saying that campaigns can win with an online-only strategy; rather, running an effective campaign is a multi-channel proposition: television, online and direct mail should all be part of an integrated strategy. And the future of communication will increasingly be digital: online media strategies outside of collecting emails are effectively reaching voters, and more and more advanced targeting technologies enable campaigns to reach their intended audience very efficiently.

In the end, despite overwhelming evidence that online communication ought to be a critical part of the media mix, many consultants -- especially on the Democratic side -- still believe television really is king, allowing old ways of thinking to reign. How long will this reign last? In the digital age, it's always shorter than you think.

Amy Gershkoff, Ph.D., is co-founder of Changing Targets Media, a Washington, D.C. - based political consulting firm. Frank Chi is a Democratic consultant at Chi/Donahoe+Cole/Duffey.