Chris Nolan, CEO and Founder of Spot-on, tells C&E that candidates in the Golden State have yet to embrace online, targeted advertising as part of a campaign’s comprehensive media buying strategy.
C&E: What are the services that Spot-on provides?
Nolan: Spot-on is a political website that sells ads placements in online advertising campaigns. We do have an editorial outlet that syndicates editorial copy from our website, but that has been on hiatus. I am the founder and CEO of the company.
C&E: What are some of the trends you are seeing in political online advertising in California this year?
Nolan: The fist thing is that there is a lot more online activity [than in previous cycles]. There are two causes, the first is Meg Whitman. That campaign has spent extensively on television, radio, online and outdoor. If you can put Meg Whitman’s name on it, they have purchased something.
There is about $120 million of her money in the campaign so far – that is expected to go up between now and Tuesday. The Whitman camp has raised prices for television buys, particularly in the Los Angeles market. That sent some people online to make their campaigns more cost effective. You can’t get on KNBC, but you can get on KNBC’s website. But it is still very hit or miss. We are not seeing the kind of budgeting online that starts with the campaign development process and moves forward. Campaigns usually wait till the end and say: “we have extra money, how do we spend it?”
A few down-ballot races have said: “we need two or three markets, let’s buy online and push our message out to the people we want to get to.” I think you are seeing that with some of the referendum issues too. Where online has been built it in, it was search advertising or last minute display stuff.
C&E: What has the buying been like for statewide races and propositions?
Nolan: The guys at Bully Pulpit are spending. That went up after the June primary and stayed there. They are hitting every media markets and they’re buying like they would buy TV. They do TV ads and throw it up online.
We are not seeing people having a TV, radio, phone and online plan at the beginning [of their campaigns]. [Online purchases are] coming in late and often going to Google and Yahoo, mostly Google, search and keyword advertising. So, the idea that you are buying online as a strategic part of your campaign has not caught on. That said, this year has been much better than 2008 [for online media purchases]. Exponentially better.
C&E: Is this a surprise given that has been so much buzz about the political utility of online advertising after the 2008 cycle?
Nolan: The answer is yes and no. there is a lot of reluctance for consultants to move online, in part because they do not see where they profit from it. Consultants make money on a TV buy – when they do online they do not get the commission they get from TV. It is still a very difficult proposition to buy online. However, in some cases dealing with publishers is more trouble than dealing with campaigns. There are still some media outlets that do not know how to sell online. One sales representative told me they didn’t deal in pixels they only deal in column inches.
That said, campaigns have become more aggressive [with their online media buying strategy]. Google has made a great impression on the political community. One of the things that I think will be interesting is what is called the “Google surge” – you buy up last minute inventory and hope for the best. The surge is credited for most campaign wins last year, McDonnell bought [the “Google surge”] and won, Christie bought and won.
Here, in June, Kamala Harris and Chris Kelly were both running in the Democratic primary for Attorney General and both bought the Google buys and it was Mrs. Harris that went on to win. I think we will soon see the “Google surge” meet a timely death. Only one person can win, you know?
Another thing is that there is not a lot of inventory here. I was trying to put stuff in LA and the Daily News told me that the media news outlets were down to slim pickings. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had sold out by now. MSNBC in LA is difficult to place right now and we are ten days out. I wouldn’t be surprised if CNN is sold out by now too.
You have to know where to go know what to do. If you want to say to a campaign: “we have extra money, let’s go online,” it would be difficult. We did Scot Brown’ [Special Senate election in Massachusetts] last year and we got a lot of donations last minute, so we got effective displays up within 7 days of the election. If someone here wanted to do that, we don’t think it would be a viable strategy.
You have a lot of people coming to the table late in the cycle and they are finding that they are coming in too late. My business is far more robust than it was last year, and that was an off-year. We are doing exponentially better than 2008. I can’t say that every race in California has purchased online and is using it effectively, efficiently and well. Many are looking at the Whitman campaign as a model of what to do, but when they try to do that they realize that they can’t afford it.
C&E: What are you seeing from purchases in local races or by the prop campaigns?
The “yes on [proposition to legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal position] 19” guys got out early, and the “no on 19” people have been working hard. “Yes” has done a fairly active campaign, and the polls have recently collapsed. I think that is one issue where voters lie to pollsters. That is a lot like gay marriage – Proposition 8 was polling well ahead of where it ended up on Election Day.
I don’t see a lot of congressional races online or local races online. The business props did some online, but many did it as “value added” for their television buys. Also, there is a last minute nature to this. People are coming in with last minute buys that started last Tuesday. They should have been up a month ago.
Chris Nolan is the founder of Spot-on, an online ad placement service for political campaigns and candidates. As a former reporter, Nolan covered Washington, D.C. politics and Silicon Valley. Her weekly Silicon Valley column, “Talk is Cheap,” debuted in 1997 at the beginnings of the Internet stock boom and was well regarded for its humor, insight and news value. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, Fortune, Business 2.0 and Conde Nast Traveler. She holds a B.A. degree from Barnard College, Columbia University.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com