Narrowcasting the campaign for governor

The Dallas Morning News has a story on how Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison have waged much of their campaign thus far with web ads. Rather than investing expensive television advertising early in the campaign, the Perry and KBH camps have opted to take the less expensive path of creating advertising designed specifically for distribution on the Internet.

A Kay Bailey Hutchison AdThe campaigns have been placing ads on their own website for months. However, they are also buying spots on conservative news site in an attempt to reach likely Republican primary voters.

There are a several significant characteristics of these types of ads:

(1) They are quick and inexpensive. Campaigns can produce these ads quickly and on every issue and for every line of attack on their opponent. It encourages of a shoot first and ask questions later approach.

(2) They are viral media. This means that people will pass them on to their friends based on their entertainment value. People will pass along links to funny or otherwise entertaining political messages more often than dry, boring ads. It’s a kind of message survival of the fittest as we give new life to ads we like while boring ads die a slow and lonely death. Especially entertaining or controversial ads might even find their way onto television news shows and earn the campaign a little “free” or “earned” media (in contrast to “paid media” that campaigns pay to put on the air).

As viral media takes hold we should expect to see campaigns spend more on writing that produces fun ads we want to share and less on the television ads that try to force their way into our conciseness. Campaigns need to learn the lesson from YouTube stars like “Obama Girl” who got 15.7 million views of her “I’ve got a Crush on Obama” video. An ad that captures a little imagination can go far.

There are campaign seminars all over the country this year designed to teach campaigns how to replicate Obama’s success with social networking. Social networks like Facebook have altered campaigns by empowering everyday citizens to become the medium for the campaign’s message. This resembles the old two-step flow of communication in the communications literature. In the old two-step, opinion leaders receive information mass media, campaigns, etc and then pass along information–with some context and interpretation– to average citizens. A message coming from a friend with common concerns and common interests is much more likely to be viewed and believed than a message directly through broadcast media. A yard sign or bumper sticker used to be the best way of letting those you knew how you felt. In today’s two-step, it’s the next step to sharing is fast, easy, and allows more than would fit on a yard sign.

(3) The audience can be narrow. In contrast to “broadcasting” on television, this kind of advertising is called “narrowcasting.”  Beyond cost, an advantage is that the broader Texas public probably doesn’t want to hear about the 2010 election in 2009. The last thing that candidates can afford to do is wear out their welcome a full year before the election. The candidates are quietly working the narrow part of the public that is already interested while leaving other Texans undisturbed. The narrow audience  of the early campaign season can be especially important because it includes many of the donors that will fuel the campaigns down the stretch.

Narrowcasting allows the campaign to sharpen their message and use arguments that might alienate a broader audience. Candidates battling for the hearts and souls of the base of their party need not flaunt their courtship of the fringes in front of moderates. With the number of independent voters rising the last thing (most) candidates want to do is lose those crucial swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum.

Social networks allow messages to naturally find their way to the right audience. Hunters may pass along materials about gun rights while students may share stories or ads about tuition increases. Your friends know better than campaigns what message is likely to resonate with you.

The  saturation bombing of the television ad we’ve grown to expect will not end any time soon. We’ll see plenty of traditional television advertising in the days leading up to the 2010 election. This is partly the result of campaigns’ efforts to reach out toward independent voters who are not tied into social networks of highly political voters. Another reason for the reliance on broadcast advertising is that political campaigns often prefer to rely on what has worked before (or at least they assume worked before). It doesn’t help that many consulting firms make their money off buying air time.

A Rick Perry AdNarrowcasting is coming soon to a television near you. Cable companies are already able to offer campaigns relatively narrow audiences by geographically targeting areas through cable.  Before cable advertising, candidates in parts of eastern Texas had to buy ads on Shreveport broadcast stations. That left them paying for a lot of viewers who couldn’t vote for them. Now, cable companies allow city-by-city advertising buys.

Cable companies can give campaigns pretty precise demographics that tell them what kind of person is watching different shows or networks. They track what kinds of people are watching particular shows. Combined with the geographic targeting that cable companies can do, it is possible for a campaign to pretty effectively reach narrow groups and buy ads that will appeal to their interests.

The cable industry is telling campaigns that by 2012 they will be able to target individual homes. The cable companies will be able to build a profile based on the shows you watch and send you a different campaign ad than your neighbor is getting. This profile can matched up with the micro-targeting models that the political parties have built using their massive databases to hit you with ads about the issues that interest you the most.

It’s a brave new world of media.

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