Barack Obama’s presidential campaign may have mastered the business of online advertising better than any previous national political campaign, but Obama’s success had less to do with technological advances than his campaign’s ability to leverage existing technology.

At least that was the consensus at the Personal Democracy Forum in New
York on Monday. During the “Online Advertising: Lessons from the 2008
Campaign” panel, the speakers agreed that the difference between the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns had more to do with adoption of online advertising than any major shift in technology.

According to Kate Kaye of ClickZ, “There have been advances in terms of
the application of certain types of targeting. But it’s
not like retargeting or behavioral targeting were unknown in 2004. It’s
just that political advertisers adopted them more in 2008.”

The one major difference, however, is with online video. In 2004, YouTube didn’t even exist. And according to Peter Greenberger, manager of Google‘s elections and advocacy team, “Even in 2006, was more of a gotcha moment. But that changed dramatically in 2008. It was one of Obama’s greatest tools.” Greenberger also noted that more people watched Obama’s videos on YouTube than on CNN. And while .8% of political budgets were spent on online advertising in the 2004 election, Obama was spending close to 5% of his budget by 2008.

But even Obama’s campaign was just the beginning of what’s possible
online for political candidates. Says Josh Koster, managing partner at
Chong and Koster, a Washington based new-media advising firm: “It
really hasn’t reached the tipping point yet. Or rather, it didn’t in
2008.”

The problem for Koster, is that political campaigns are “allergic to spending money.” But he advises campaigns, no matter how small, to focus their attention online: “I’d spend my first advertising dollar on search. If you have money left over, move into text and display… But you should have a search ad for every talking point about your candidate, and his opponent.”

The beauty of online ads, of course, is that advertisers are only charged when a viewer clicks on them. And in the case of political talking points, even search ads can work as brand builders. Even when viewers don’t click on advertising, they can still see it. And in the case of talking points, a short statement in support of or against a candidate can have a lot of influence.  

Corporate strategy consultant Sara Holubek finds that element is often overlooked: “All advertising has historically been sold on the premise of building awareness. Online is so measureable we often forget that an ad is about that.”

And while Washington is often slower than the private sector when it comes to grasping technological
innovation, they have caught on in two areas — behavioral targeting and
mobile.

Political campaigns have gotten very savvy about using online behavior to track political affiliation. In addition, they can use the information they have about web users to serve them information about a candidate particular to their pet causes. Kaye also pointed out that both the RNC and DNC are working in conjunction with AOL, MSN and Yahoo to marry their voter logs with behavioral tracking online to serve more ads (a practice that few are currently aware of).

All also agreed that Obama’s decision to announce his VP choice via SMS was a big step for mobile advertising. “That must have been the largest SMS campaign ever,” said Holubek. “And it gave a lot of inspiration to traditional online advertisers.”

Speaking to an audience of political strategists and non-profit employees, the panelists stressed how much value even small campaigns can find online. But they also noted that the shift online is unavoidable.

Said Koster: “The average internet user spends twice as much time in front of a computer than in front of the television now. People’s behavior is changing. If you want to continue reaching out to the same audiences and viewers, you need to go where they are.”