Between The Numbers: Power To The PCs

Online's got political clout

In just a few short years the Internet has gone from being the butt of campaign jokes about who might have invented it to being a platform for debates and a powerful fund-raising tool. "Citizens are using technology in more open, collaborative ways," says Ginny Hunt, senior associate with Google's election team. For example, she says, Obama volunteers were able to use technology to self-organize in several states before official staff came in.

Today, "Americans spend the same amount of time online as they do watching television," says Peter Greenberger, manager of the Google elections and issue advocacy team, adding that political advertising dollars have not adjusted to this new reality. "Less than 1% of all political spending in 2004 went online, but I expect that to double in '08," he says.

Surprisingly, this substantial shift into newer online media as part of the political strategic plan has not been at the expense of old media. According to a recent report from JupiterResearch, "Mobilizing Online Voters," citizens use a healthy mix of media to educate themselves, communicate about and support their candidates, including television, newspapers, magazines and radio.

In fact, the study says, "activist" voters - which Jupiter media analyst and report author Barry Parr defines as "individuals who have done something online to support a candidate," spend less than 5% of their time in any single medium.

"This is very much a grassroots campaign," says Parr. "Millions of individual acts are being used to reach a relatively large number of people." As a result, "the effort is coming from the bottom up, and I think that's a very important distinction. Typically, online is cheap and highly centralized. That's not what we're looking at here. It's pretty expensive and decentralized."

Television is still the primary medium for viewing political videos, with the most popular sources being TV news (by 61% of online users), TV campaign ads (42%) and presidential candidates' debates (41%), followed by Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (12% combined). "After these, the sources get much more fragmented," Parr says.

Even more significant, print still matters. Newspapers and magazines are the top two sources for articles about presidential candidates, with the third most cited source being network TV news Web sites. And even though older respondents were (not surprisingly) more likely to use newspapers as a source of articles about presidential candidates (63% for age 55 and over and 55% for 45-54), a sizable amount of the younger generation (31% of the 18-24 group and 39% of 25-34) also turned to newspaper articles.

E-mail, though, is almost nonexistent as a source of information for voters of any age. Just 3% of 18-to-24-year-olds considered e-mail from a friend a source, while 2% considered e-mail from a campaign a source. That same number was just 11% for the 45-54 age group and 9% for 55 and over.

How should advertisers think differently today? First, Parr says, "There's a significant population online who want nothing better than to tell you what they think you should do - recommending their favorite brand, restaurant or politician - and you want to give them an opportunity to do that. That's a big piece of it." The other piece, he says, is to remember that bloggers matter, and that many blog readers are still trying to make up their minds about who they are going to vote for.

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