If you're following the presidential election, you've probably heard about the advertising battle going on across the airwaves. The media tends to obsess over campaign commercials, with story after story on their accuracy and how much the campaigns are spending. But there's another major advertising battle going on between the Obama and Romney campaigns that gets far less media attention: the battle for digital supremacy.
So, who's winning the digital battle? According to a study published last month by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, Obama is cleaning up.
The Pew study looked at posts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and the respective campaign websites. Over the two weeks that the Pew study examined, the Obama campaign posted 614 times across the platforms. Team Romney posted 168 times. The contrast was most stark on Twitter; the Obama campaign averaged 29 tweets each day on two different accounts, while the Romney campaign averaged just one tweet each day.
The report's numbers suggest that this isn't so much a battle as a steamrolling. But numbers can be deceiving. After all, throwing up a lot of posts reveals nothing about the effectiveness of the campaign. It's the engagement numbers for each post that tell the more compelling story. And Obama is winning this battle as well. According to the Pew study, the Obama campaign's posts are seeing twice the number of shares, views, and comments.
So, case closed? Not so fast. As Vincent Harris noted on BuzzFeed last month, the Pew study looked at some engagement metrics but ignored others. For example, on August 16, Obama had around 23 million more Facebook fans than Romney. Yet, when Harris checked Facebook's figures on the number of people "talking about" each page, he found that Mitt Romney was leading Obama 1,579,476 to 1,354,550. Romney was even winning the "talking about" contest on September 6, in the middle of the Democratic National Convention (3,328,253 to 2,612,617.)
The Romney campaign, not surprisingly, is claiming that they have a superior Facebook operation, but even the "talking about" figures can be misleading. Just because people are talking about your page doesn't mean they have nice things to say about you. Romney's advantage could well be a reflection of how many more people are slamming him.
Harris, who ran digital operations for Speaker Newt Gingrich and Governor Rick Perry's 2012 Presidential campaigns, most likely gets ahead of himself in his title, "Romney, Not Obama, Is Winning The Social Media Race." After all, Obama's supporters are much more likely to be young and tech savvy, which helps explain why Michelle Obama's DNC speech saw almost twice as many tweets per minute at its peak as Mitt Romney's RNC speech at its peak.
But if Harris might be wrong on the big picture, he's correct that we need to look at the right metrics before declaring a digital winner -- especially with respect to display advertising. In looking at April 2012 numbers, ComScore found that the Obama campaign was running far more display impressions; however, the winner of the display battle won't necessarily be the campaign that floods the Internet with the most ads, but rather the campaign that best understands how to use all the data they're gathering most effectively.
According to the AP, both campaigns are using retargeting, meaning they're targeting ads to users based on their online behaviour. The AP article doesn't give a complete picture of the targeting operations, but it does note that Obama is using site retargeting, meaning if you visit Obama's campaign site and then browse around the web, you're likely to encounter an Obama ad. The AP report also suggests that Romney is using search retargeting, meaning if you perform a search on Google for, say, "Romney" or "Health Care," you're likely to encounter a Romney ad as you browse the Internet.
It will also be crucial for the campaigns to use more sophisticated site retargeting techniques, based on data collected from a user's behaviour on the sites they visit. Using this data, the campaigns can serve that user display ads tailored to the issues they care about. The Obama team is known to have a sophisticated email operation, so there's good reason to think they're equally sophisticated when it comes to display. But, for what it's worth, Romney's Digital Director Sac Moffatt insists that his team is running a superior online ad campaign.
In other words, though it appears that Obama is winning the battle for digital supremacy, we don't yet know enough to declare victory. What we do know is that the team with the best data mining and retargeting operations is going to get the most out of each dollar.