Marketing the Candidates – An Ever-Changing Game

Presidential campaigns: they happen every four years, providing an interesting opportunity to identify changes and trends in marketing. These campaigns are run by some of the most sophisticated marketers in the world, with access to enormous budgets and resources. A look at how their strategies have evolved provides good insight into how media consumption has changed since the last election.


This political season, campaigns are taking advantage of online targeting like never before, using site context, audience or prior engagement to get a very specific message to particular groups like never before. Campaigns can now tailor dozens or hundreds of different messages designed to appeal to the audience profile for a display ad, replacing the old targeted direct mail approach. Do you enjoy hunting? There is a message specifically for you. College student? Another message. Small-business owner? Yet another.

Real-time response

Immediate reaction is a key part of this year’s political campaign strategy. For candidates, using social media, like Twitter, to respond to events, do damage control and call out opponent’s gaffes is critical. The upside is the immediacy this enables, but starting a conversation online, or worse – trying to manipulate the conversation – can have unforeseen effects. Take, for example, the RNC-promoted hashtag #areyoubetteroff, launched in early September. The hashtag took on a life of its own and was quickly turned into a referendum on the candidates’ own good fortunes during the economic downturn; not what the strategists expected.


Consider the lead-time involved in political TV advertising – constructing the message, production, planning, airing. By contrast, online display campaigns can be tested, refined and deployed in a matter of days. The greatest asset of online marketing is immediacy, and campaigns no longer need to rely strictly on pollsters to gather and report public opinion – campaigners can use ad performance to understand voter sentiment in real time. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, political interests ran a $50 test of various messages on Google AdWords. After a click count, follow-up messaging was deployed within hours, garnering $1.6 million in PAC contributions in three days. Immediacy like this, with nearly instant results, was unheard of even four years ago.

Americans are always happy when the elections are over and the barrage of political advertising comes to an end. But in the meantime it’s a great opportunity to watch and see how the constantly shifting messaging of the online tug-of-war plays out through election day.