Online Political Spending Disappoints

Twenty million new broadband users since 2000, and a presidential election billed as the most important of our time, was not reason enough for either party to spend significantly on Web advertising, industry analysts conclude. Indeed, neither political party seemed to think the Web worthy of significant investment, despite the fact that yesterday's presidential nail-biter generated record online traffic to political and news-related sites.

"Campaigners are the ultimate Luddites," said Charlie Buchwalter, vice president of analytics at Nielsen//NetRatings. Buchwalter is one of many who predicted that considerably larger sums of money would have been spent on Web ads. "The Dean phenomenon showed them how to raise real money over the Internet, but planners didn't feel confident putting real money back into it." Early in his failed campaign for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Governor Howard Dean launched a successful online fund-raising effort. BURST! Market Research Manager Chuck Moran predicted that the campaigns would invest as much as $20 million in Web advertising. Now, as the numbers from October begin to trickle in, measurable online spending to date is not expected to exceed $6 million or $7 million, Moran and Buchwalter estimate.

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In contrast, nearly $1.45 billion has been spent on spot ads, network TV, cable TV, and local radio advertising, according to a CMR/TNS Media Intelligence report released on Monday.

"I think there's more of a future than a present for serious political Web ads," said Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at marketing firm Deutsch Inc. Like wary political advertisers, Gardiner is skeptical of the Internet's current political value. "I'm not saying that Web advertising isn't effective, but I don't think it has evolved to the point where it can sway voters." Tad Devine, a Kerry senior advisor, defended the degree to which the Democratic National Party and Kerry's supporters incorporated the Internet into their strategy: "Historically, this will be seen as a precedent-setting year with regard to online fund raising, ending the influence of special interests, and getting out the Democrat's vision for America."

A BURST! Media survey released last Thursday reported that twice the number of Web surfers visited candidates' Web sites than did so during the 2000 election. "To be clear, there was a fervent demand for expert opinion, analysis, and satire this year, and the campaigns weren't prepared to meet those voters online and bring them into the fold," argued Chuck Moran at BURST!. The survey also notes that a markedly older demographic has taken advantage of the Internet this season, challenging a common misconception that 18- to-24-year-olds have a monopoly on the medium.

comScore Networks reported on Monday that online traffic to campaign sites like GeorgeWBush.com and JohnKerry.com rose dramatically, compared to results from the last four Mondays. More than 300,000 users visited each site. A comScore spokesman said that traffic to news sites such as CNN.com and washingtonpost.com is up by an average of 15 percent.

According to comScore's Media Metrix polling, America Online capitalized on voter demand more than anyone with its interactive election site, ElectionGuide04.com. AOL's free site, reports comScore, has drawn more visitors than any other politically related Web site for months. "More popular than Bush or Kerry's home page or any number of 527s," said Lewis Dvorkin, America Online's vice president for news services.

AOL's site, launched just before the primaries, offers a list of services for concerned citizens to help them prepare for November 2--state and national polling numbers, differing editorials, political lampoon, and a "match" questionnaire, which surveys visitors' policy positions and then matches them with a like-minded candidate. Subscribers have access to a "Press Pass" service so they can watch ABC News' streaming video of complete campaign coverage.

Jaan Janes, Director of Advertising at AOL, is optimistic--but all too aware of the low numbers spent on Web ads this season. "They're just beginning to see the Internet's potential," said James. "It's vital that these campaigns connect with the voters, and there is a tremendous opportunity to make that connection on the Web." He seems comfortable waiting until 2008, when he believes the parties will have truly integrated Web-ad strategies into their campaigns. It's unlikely that either the Democrats or the Republicans will demonstrate such patience.

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