Surge Seen in Online Political Ads, But Which Sites Will Be Winners?

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donkphant[1]Digital platforms traditionally haven’t gotten too much in the way of political ad spending, but new projections from Borrell Associates show online outlets making a big leap this year amid the midterms — going from $14.1 million in 2010 to $211.2 million in 2014.

Broadcast TV has been and remains the big winner in ad spending — going from $4.1 billion in 2010 to $4.6 billion in 2014.  But the medium’s projected increase of 11.5% is less than the 15.7% increase in quadrennial spending — which will rise from a total of $7.2 billion to $8.3 billion.

It’s not clear whether community news sites — many of which cover campaign news diligently — will benefit from the projected huge increase in online spending by candidates and ballot issues and their various PACs. News sites will have to compete against other, non-news-focused sites which, even if they ignore candidates and the issues, have big audiences.

Borrell Associates EVP Kip Cassino, who leads the company’s ad spend projections, explained: “The majority of political campaign managers — especially those involved with the smaller resourced, more local efforts — are amateurs with widely varying levels of experience. They tend to spend their ad money very predictably — for the most part, the ways they have seen it spent before. For that reason, community sites may not be on their radar as a good place to spend their money.


“Editors who guide these sites will need to show campaigns who their sites reach in order to get their consideration. They certainly don’t have it now,” said Cassino. “The voter turnout and interest in local issues and candidates is generally low — far lower than what’s enjoyed by ballot issues and state-wide or national contests. Perhaps, by closely following and highlighting some of these issues and candidates, community sites could generate interest among candidates and garner some of the campaign advertising that is flowing through the nation this year.”

The company’s CEO, Gordon Borrell, added:

“Community sites can benefit two ways: By participating in one of the ad networks that might receive the larger buys, and of course by offering exposure to candidates at the local and state legislature elections. There’s more money and certainty in the latter, especially if the community site can offer ads targeted by ZIP-Code or county. Campaign managers right now are studying precincts and marking certain ones for heavy marketing. The community site that can deliver ads to readers from that specific precinct will have a good chance of snaring political ads.

“The fly in the ointment that it’s difficult to reach the decision-maker in the campaign, and more difficult to get on their radar at the instant they want to place those ads. Often, the ads are bought on the spur of the moment and placed in the medium that’s most top of mind at that moment. And it might not be a community website if the sales rep hasn’t made an impression or been persistent enough.”

I went to Scott Brodbeck, who founded three independent community sites in metro Washington, D.C. — ARLnow in Northern Virginia’s Arlington (200,000 unique visitors/monthly), RestonNow in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County (32,000 UVs/monthly) and BethesdaNow in Maryland’s  Montgomery County (50,000 UVs/monthly) — to see what his cluster was doing in political ads:

“We certainly get a nice boost from political ads. The ads we get are local in nature — from U.S. House of Representatives races on down. They’re not as big of a contributor to our bottom line as they probably are for TV stations, but they’re certainly helping.

“Political and advocacy ads have accounted for 4% to 5% of our revenue so far this year, and we have more campaigns to go. We definitely have seen more interest from campaigns year over year.

Meghan McMahon, ARLnow’s director of sales, elaborated:

“The political ads we get are very localized, and our sites (especially Arlington) are doing very well saturating the markets they’re in when it comes to unique visitors and page views.

“I do see an increase in interest, and think it will only grow. At this time, most political ads are run on the site 4-6 weeks out from elections (some even less if they’re late to the game). I’m hoping I can capitalize on getting these ads up earlier for longer runs.

McMahon said political campaigns, like other potential customers, get detailed demographics on the demographics of ARLnow’s cluster in ARLnow’s media kit. Some political ad buyers might want to spend some of their money to target racial or ethnic groups. But ARLnow does not offer numbers in those categories.

At The Daily Voice, which has 41 news sites in the Connecticut and Westchester County suburbs of New York City, CEO Carll Tucker said: “We have seen significant increases in election advertising in each of our four cycles. We expect a substantial jump this year. Politicians, more than others, are attuned to what their constituents are reading. They know — pretty much all of them — it’s not newspapers any more. And cable has gotten more expensive and less productive. Daily Voice targets their exact audience at a fraction of the price of other media.”

Among The Daily Voice’s population reach of 1.5 million, the network has 538,000 UVs/monthly averaging 2 visits per unique and 2 pageviews per visit.

Tucker said: “we tell candidates exactly our penetration of their target communities, but mostly we don’t have to — they come to us as inbound leads. Overall penetration we figure to be more than 60% of addressable market. Deduct young people below 25 (about a third of the population — not interested in community news), the digitally illiterate (mostly seniors) and non-English speakers (mostly in the cities), and you end up with an addressable market of 800,000 to 850,000. We can break out New York and Connecticut but they’re about the same, on average, though penetration varies widely by community (the bigger the city the worse the penetration, in general, and the higher the totals).”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.