Obama Online: Preaching to the Choir Could Cost Him the Election

10/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Almost all of the coverage I've seen about Barack Obama's campaign strategy has mentioned his cultivation and understanding of the internet community -- the online activists who have formed the backbone of his tremendous fund raising machine. Of all the candidates this year he has been the most savvy in his use of social media platforms like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube (though John McCain has been making serious inroads with online video) and has had an impressive strategy and execution for his website and online community.

Looking at dollars spent Obama has a clear advantage over McCain -- he's outspending his Republican rival by more than two to one. So how is John McCain using the internet to gain traction and turn this race into a dead heat and what can Obama do to remedy the situation?
While it's true that in overall spending Obama is blowing McCain out of the water, there is one place where McCain is actually outspending the Democratic nominee -- and the results have been promising enough for him to up the ante -- online search advertising. Not only is McCain putting more resources into search engine advertising, his approach to the medium is markedly different to that of the Obama campaign.

According to ComScore in June 2008, McCain and Obama purchased a combined 7.39 million sponsored search engine ads: 4.8 million exposures for McCain vs. 2.6 for Obama. Where Obama keeps it courtly by mostly buying keywords related to his name and campaign McCain is aggressively buying competitive terms like "Joe Biden" and "Barack Obama" as well as running ads that specifically call out Obama's qualifications and differences with running mate Biden. Perhaps most importantly McCain is also buying many more issue-based terms (bioterrorism preparedness, drilling in Alaska, global warming news, immigration issues), in an attempt to reach undecided voters.

These guys are running two very different campaigns in pursuit of the same result.

Obama is running a masterful brand campaign - using his rising sun logo and slogan: "The Audacity of Hope" / "Change We Can Believe In". He stays on message no matter the channel. The Obama camp is focused on getting people to buy into a brand ethos and then spreading the word virally via social media.

McCain, on the other hand, seems to be running a more direct-response focused campaign -- finding contextually relevant places to intercept the constituency and trying to provide them with information that could sway them. For instance a search for antiwar activist group MoveOn brings up an ad with the text "Learn about John McCain's Views on the War in Iraq" which clicks through to a pro-McCain page titled "Fighting Islamic Extremists" with an interactive time line showing his "consistent" position.

The danger for Obama is that he's missing the online audience that McCain is targeting by concentrating so heavily on social media. He also loses out on the flexibility and control that search engine advertising affords when it's done properly.

The people who are most likely to search for information on issues or a candidate's name are the ones who are most likely to be undecided. In what's shaping up to be a close election this is a crucial block. Right now those people are running searches on "Barack Obama" or "energy crisis" and in addition to whatever organic results Google or Yahoo pulls up there is a McCain ad up top or on the right side that addresses the topic and leads the user to a McCain landing page. The McCain ad for the search term "Joe Biden" asks users "What Does Joe Biden Say About Barack Obama?" and leads them to McCain's attack ad which uses Biden's own words against Obama. The same ad runs when users search for Obama's name as well.

Doing a similar search for Republican VP choice Sarah Palin brings up a McCain ad that leads to a donor page. While this isn't nearly as clever as their Biden ad it doesn't have to be - there is no competing message from the Obama campaign. Why not an ad that says "See what Barack Obama has to say about Sarah Palin?" that could lead to the clip of Obama telling the media to "back off" the rumors about her family -- a great way of showing the different kind of campaign he is running. A hard hitting approach would be along the lines of "See what Sarah Palin's record of reform is" leading to a page that details her flip-flops on the "Bridge to Nowhere" and her work for indicted Senator Ted Steven's 527 organization.

At the top of the ticket a search on "McCain houses" -- a powerful meme recently with the revelation that McCain couldn't even recall the seven houses he owns -- brings up no paid messaging from Obama. "housing crisis" or "home lending crisis" would be great search terms to tie to McCain's personal housing surplus but the connection is never made for those curious swing voters who want to find out the candidates' positions on these issues.

Similarly a search for "John McCain" brings up a slew of friendly ads from either the McCain campaign or their supporters. There is no counterpoint for voters who are trying to make up their minds.

The McCain campaign is using a clever and effective strategy to reach out to people who are still forming an opinion and are unlikely to be spending much time in the social media spaces that Obama has been targeting. In addition, McCain is able to switch out his message with search ads quickly to match likely issue searches that are news-of-the-day driven.

With the campaign heading into the final stretch it will be interesting to see if Obama steps up in paid advertising on search engines. Though the McCain paid search ads have been fairly harsh, there's no reason why Obama couldn't use positive messaging to capture these swing voters at their most vulnerable -- when they are literally searching for answers. Putting this one last piece into place in combination with the Obama campaign's already stellar online display ads and social media outreach would allow a nearly perfect online presence to be truly complete.