Politicos Spend Big On Traditional Media; Crumbs For Web

When it comes to garnering political ad dollars, the Internet is the Dennis Kucinich of media outlets.

With political advertising expected to hit nearly $5 billion this election year, online spending will collect just $20 million--with half that amount funneled into paid search, according to a new study.

The report, released Wednesday by Borrell & Associates, predicts that broadcast television will maintain its dominant role in selling candidates--capturing $2.9 billion, or 60%, of all political ad spending in 2008. The rest will go to newspapers (17%), radio (10%) and cable TV (5%).

Why is the Web getting less than a penny per political ad dollar in what was supposed to be the "YouTube" election? One key reason is that older, affluent voters remain the core of candidates' political support, according to the Borrell report. The best way to reach the over-55 crowd is still TV, since most of that group spends less than an hour per week online.

"Given the demographic realities of the electorate, today's heavy reliance on TV as the medium of choice among political advertisers makes perfect sense," according to the Borrell study.

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Even so, the tiny .5% share of political advertising going to the Internet is well below the 9% chunk Borrell estimates the medium gets of ad dollars overall. It garners at least 5% in all other ad categories, including automotive, travel and health.

Another factor holding down the Internet's share of political ads is continuing uncertainty about its effectiveness in reaching and targeting undecided voters. When candidates have to make a broad impact in a short time, they are more likely to turn to TV or other media.

"Nobody wants to take a chance with the Internet. Planners and consultants have limited chances to hit a home run, and they know they can with television," Shawn Riegsecker, CEO of Centro.net, which acts as a rep firm for local media sites, was quoted in the study as saying.

To the extent that candidates are spending online, they are relying heavily on search marketing. Borrell estimates that fully half the $20 million spent in 2008 online will go to paid search, placed mainly by local campaign offices to reach people in surrounding areas.

Both Yahoo and Google have brought on political ad experts to help boost keyword advertising, working with candidates including Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee and John McCain.

Standard display ads will account for 26% of online budgets, compared to 44% for Internet spending generally. However, online video is expected to make big gains this year, grabbing almost one-quarter of political ad dollars ($4.7 million) as candidates try to entice younger voters who are accustomed to watching Web video clips.

The report also cites video efforts by presidential contenders including Mitt Romney's "MittTV" and Clinton's "HillCasts" as well as candidate channels on video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Veoh.

Of course, the biggest impact that online video has had on a campaign so far has been negative--former Sen. George Allen's infamous "Macaca moment" captured in a video clip that went viral on YouTube and helped torpedo the candidate's re-election bid last fall.

Borrell also expects that a new crop of niche political blogs such as Politico.com and RedBlueAmerica.com will become increasingly important information sources, especially for the Web 2.0 generation.

The report argues that the Web's importance for candidates goes well beyond what they're paying for online media. In particular, candidate Web sites have become a key way to build grassroots support and raise money. As an example, it points to the $17 million that Barack Obama raised in the second quarter of 2007, almost two-thirds of which ($10 million) came from online contributions.

Campaign sites also serve as "free" media hubs. "A candidate can now deliver information directly to his or her constituency--or to the electorate in general--without having to purchase airtime, newspaper space or stamps," said Gordon Borrell, president of Borrell Associates.

Fervent online support doesn't necessarily translate into votes, however. The campaign site of Internet favorite Ron Paul drew by far the largest share of traffic among 15 presidential candidates, at 37.9%. The next closest was Huckabee, with 16.4% as of December, according to Hitwise data cited by Borrell. Paul hasn't come close to winning any primaries.

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