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Local Candidates Increasingly Turning To Targeted Online Ads

By Aaron Kraut

Wednesday - 6/4/2014, 10:00am  ET

One of Rick Kessler's online adsDoor knocking, direct mail and shaking hands at Metro stations have long been the go-to strategies of local political campaigns.

Those ways of connecting to potential voters won’t go away any time soon. But an increasing number of local candidates in this month’s primary are embracing a newer concept — targeted online advertising that can put a candidate’s face on someone’s computer based on their IP address.

“There are 1,000 different sites people are clicking through. It’s incredibly broad,” said Sean Rankin, a political consultant who crafts online advertising campaigns. “We’re actually going to a significant number of different sites. Voters are finding us everywhere. But really, what they’re finding is wherever they go, we go with them.”

Rankin’s firm is behind the online advertising of County Executive candidate Phil Andrews and District 18 House of Delegates candidate Rick Kessler. Recent campaign finance reports show those two campaigns paid Rankin’s D.C.-based Apollo Political $14,296 and $9,679, respectively, for online ads.

Marc Korman, a candidate for House of Delegates in District 16, paid D.C.-based Mundy Katowitz Media upwards of $15,000 for online advertising on sites such as YouTube and Pandora, plus some promotional posts on social media networks.

“I’m doing it because it’s a cost effective way to communicate to voters and hopefully get them to click on the links,” said Korman, who sees online advertising as a cheaper, more direct option than buying a TV spot for a local legislative candidate.

District 16 covers most of Bethesda and some of Potomac, Chevy Chase and North Bethesda.

“The primary way to reach voters is to knock on doors, the second way to reach voters is mail,” Korman said. “The third way increasingly is to use social media. But it’s new. I don’t think we fully know how effective it is yet.”

Rankin described the process of microtargeting, which has seen its share of success stories in larger scale races, but is still mostly touch and go for local candidates.

“The political world started out with banner ads that would go on sites that would hit a lot of people, but wouldn’t necessarily hit registered voters, or would hit much less likely voters,” Rankin said. “There’s been a big move because in some ways, the early days of online advertising mirrored television ads. It’s big and it’s broad.

“Now it’s moved to the opposite extreme,” Rankin said. “I don’t want everybody to see the ad. I want a person who lives in my district who is a registered voter, if not a likely voter. So we gather information, go through home addresses and that lets us get closer to likely voters.”

Rankin said traffic has increased to Kessler’s website by about 60 percent and time spent on the website has increased by about six times since the campaign’s online ads were rolled out in April.

“Strategically, I think we’re far away from the main source of communication being online,” said Seth Maiman, Kessler’s campaign manager. “However, it is becoming an increasingly important part of things. In a sense, it’s probably replacing print ads.”

While campaigning at Metro stops, Korman has run across a few people who mentioned seeing his face before — in his online ads. Maiman said getting potential voters to simply recognize a candidate’s face is a boon in a down ballot race such as District 18 delegate.

Kessler’s online ads have pounded home the campaign’s message: “Rick Kessler is tired of Annapolis treating Montgomery County like an ATM.” That message also appears on the campaign’s direct mail.

“When we had our direct mail start, our hope was there was exposure to that theme beforehand,” Maiman said. “We have reason to believe that’s working. The electorate, especially in a primary, tends to skewer older with more established homeowners. So we tend to still get people who read newspapers.

“But everybody’s online now,” Maiman said.

Not every local candidate is buying in yet. A review of campaign finance reports for the January-May reporting period show few have engaged in full-on online advertising buys. Many have paid prices ranging from $5-$400 to boost their Facebook posts — a way to pin posts on the Facebook pages of fans, friends of fans or more Facebook users based on other targeting methods.

Maiman and Korman characterized their targeted online ads as another piece of the puzzle.

“This isn’t something that works in isolation, because nothing works in isolation,” Rankin said. “In an election where name ID is pretty low, this is an inexpensive tool to drive name ID. There are some candidates more willing than others to go out and engage.”