Electioneers Need Some (PPC) Campaign Management

During the 2004 US Presidential election race I was actively practicing the art of the American dream, crashing on a friend’s couch on the Big Island of Hawaii. In the two weeks leading up to the vote, as I lazed around on the lanai watching literal local surfers, laptop on lap, marketing things to non-literal remote surfers, the phone rang.

It was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

THE Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the big arms. And he was calling little ole me to say:

“This is Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I”m here to PUMP — YOU UP! About President Bush”

I wish I was kidding. By the fifth call or so the novelty had worn off and I began to hope secretly that all the marijuana consumed in the governator’s Mr. Universe days had seriously affected his non-political performance abilities.

It was simple, classic, invasive, annoying marketing. The old standby really. In Blue Hawaii it seemed destined to offend the majority of recipients, but at least reach the portion of the undecided population that, you know, had phones. It was more reminiscent of e-mail spam than savvy marketing, leading me to wonder what percentage of the party ad budgets were blanketed over non-targeted, broad market awareness campaigns.

Is this really effective in reaching swing voters trying to make a decision? Isn’t there a better way to allocate those presumably precious pennies? In 2004, I could forgive election campaign managers for not being familiar with the fine art of keyword research and character limited ad-copy. Come 2008, I’m back home in Montreal, this time inundated with the dual-propaganda of simultaneous federal Canadian and American elections. I’m still in the world of internet marketing, keywords still rule my life, and I’m left to wonder, have the electioneers’ comprehension of this strange world of search marketing evolved with the times?

Last week, as I was contemplating this post and poking around what political ads were where, Jane at SEOmoz was handling the weekly roundup and pointed out this valleywag post. Apparently Hitwise and Valleywag had done some dirty work and constructed lists of key-phrases that each presidential campaign is buying advertising for via Google AdWords.

It’s almost as unbelievable as Arnold Schwarzenegger calling me on a Sunday morning. Meaning, I’m not quite sure I believe it. If these are actual, unadulterated lists of the phrases each candidate is bidding on then I’m a little dumbfounded. If it were revealed that they had been cobbled together by a vast number of monkeys with vast numbers of typewriters, I may find myself unable to feign surprise. Okay a little harsh maybe, but really, is this the work of the brains behind the western hemisphere’s next front-man?

Let’s see, the Republican campaign appears to be bidding on 148 phrases, the Democrats, 219. If we subtract from each campaign the key-phrases that are self-referential to either the presidential candidate or their running mate we have left:

But wait, I swear I saw an Obama ad on a Plain search last time I was south of the border. Off I go to the Google ads preview tool to see if these lists are even realistic.

Starting at the top, there are no McCain ads for: price of oil per barrel today, obama, joe biden, presidential election campaign jobs in ny city, obama campaign, cost of iraq war 10 billion, republican party hopkins county texas, campaign issues, register to vote republican, who’s (sic) ahead in the election.. okay hang on. Zero for 10? Really?

And Obama – maryland democratic headquarters in annapolis, yup Obama ad. Denver convention center, nope. VP, nope.

The only positive in the bunch looks like a broadmatch on ‘democratic headquarters’ – which is supported by the fact that an Obama ad also appears on the nonsensical query ‘democratic headquarters in Uruguay’. Beyond this most of the ‘brand’ keywords centered around the names of the candidates and running mates can be explained by broadmatch also.

Back to my original hypothesis: monkeys.

Now that I’m certain these lists are near meaningless (like the bid on ‘www.realistate laws’ didn’t give it away), I think it’s time to do a spot check on some GOOD keywords to see if anybody is bidding where they should be. Google has been none too subtle in its attempts to grab part of the campaign spending pie, sponsoring political events and releasing some rather loose AdWords guidelines on their public policy blog. It’s perfectly okay to bid on peoples names so long as there are no ‘personal life’ attacks on the site. The policy is pretty lax in general, so much so in fact that you’d think each campaign headquarters would have brought in experts to ensure every conceivable keyphrase was covered by either the official site or some support sites. Almost anything goes, and this is the cheapest most targeted advertising available, you can directly solicit people who haven’t made up their minds or are reading up on the issues; this is a no brainer!

Now I have to think like a monkey for a second and come up with some phrases that might be plugged in by swing voters seeking information. How about:

  • election issues
  • palin on healthcare
  • cost of the iraq war
  • mortgage crisis
  • bailout plan
  • immigration policy
  • education
  • free trade
  • gas prices
First up: election issues
Neither candidate is bidding. REALLY? I can’t believe this. Can someone deny this for me please?
next: Palin on healthcare
Nobody. Wow. If you search for ‘sarah palin on healthcare’ you get a support site for McCain; if you just search ‘Sarah Palin’ you get both candidates with an ad up. But nothing else. No ads for ‘Sarah Palin Russia’, ‘Sarah Palin interview’, ‘Sarah Palin immigration’. Sheesh.
next:cost of the Iraq war
next: mortgage crisis
Obama ad! Finally! Even a title referring to Obama’s economic plan. Nothing from the McCain site.
next: bailout plan
Nothing. A major news event that thousands of people are searching for, a perfect chance to send a strong message for either party, and nothing.
next: immigration policy
next: education
Zero. Nothing for ‘education policy’, ‘education plan’ – dudes! You should be broad matching on this AND going for crazy unedumacated misspellings!
next: free trade
Nothing. Sigh. This is getting discouraging.
and lastly: gas prices

Nobody. At this point, I’m not surprised.

Can it really be that nobody at either campaign sees the value of bidding on these phrases (and the ten thousand more that could be relevant) leading up to what will inevitably be a close election? Google has condoned it – heck, they’ve encouraged it, paid big bucks to try and inform the parties of the value they’re missing out on, and all, seemingly, to no avail. Or maybe Google’s ad preview tool sucks. I’m sure you guys will let me know. A quick scan of Canadian election hot topics like ‘Afghanistan’ and even candidate names like ‘Stephane Dion’ pull no ads whatsoever. It’s just as bad north of the border.

The electioneers on both sides of the political spectrum, not to mention both sides of the border, appear in dire need of a PPC makeover – it’s so bad it’s absurd. If you’re a search marketer and politically active, now might be a good time to contact your local representative and see if you can’t explain to them the concept of keyword-triggered advertisements, targeting people looking for issues. If you know what targeting someone in the sales-cycle means, explain to them what it might mean to target someone in the decision-cycle.


Naoise Osborne

Naoise Osborne

A former member of the Acquisio team, Naoise was the Search Engine Marketing Director at Catalytics, the services arm of Acquisio before that was sold off so that the company could focus more on developing the Acquisio platform. In his role at Catalytics, Naoise managed SEO strategy for agencies across North America. Today, Naoise is based in Montreal where he is a founding partner of AOD Media Group Inc., which specializes in SEO, analytics and Facebook marketing.

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