The digital display battle

The digital display battle
How display media helped President Obama win online

On the heels of this year’s presidential contest, C&E asked my company to take a look at how the Obama and Romney campaigns employed digital display advertising in 2012.

Moat is a digital analytics and intelligence company that works most prominently with brand advertisers. Our newest analysis tool—Moat Pro—lets us search for ads (including political ones) by advertiser or publisher. It yields metrics like “share of voice” and traffic paths, as well as publisher information for advertising in digital display media.

Our analysis of the advertising strategies from the two campaigns gave us some clues about how digital display media helped Obama win online.

Messaging For Mitt Romney, we tracked 157 distinct pieces of display advertising. Virtually every one contained a strong call to action—the big red “contribute” button featured prominently in the majority of Romney’s display ads.

The Romney campaign chose to place “contribute” in the foreground and a potpourri of other messages in the background. The Romney ads contained a diversity of messages—many of them essentially ideological appeals: “We don’t belong to government, the government belongs to us” or “I will never apologize for America.”

Some of Romney’s ads, designed to sell branded merchandise such as canvas bags, t-shirts or campaign buttons, were placed on sites that draw a younger demographic—, a video gaming site, being one example.

President Obama’s campaign employed almost 1,400 different creative designs in its display advertising campaign, yet there were some consistent features across many of them. Stylistically, they all refer to Michelle and Barack by their first names. They all had calls-to-action—the vast majority promoted voter registration or asked folks to “get started” with the campaign effort by collecting contact info and registering with the Obama campaign online.

The Obama online strategy, at least in part, was to use digital display advertising to register new voters. About a quarter of the creative featured First Lady Michelle Obama encouraging voters to get to the polls. Obama’s arsenal also included a number of ads that took direct aim at Romney. Several hit Romney’s 47 percent remarks; others took aim at his tax plan. Some were pure base appeals: “Mitt Romney wants to take away a woman’s right to choose,” read one.

A number of Obama ads were designed to look similar to Romney’s display ads, with several carrying a less than flattering photo of the Republican nominee.

Media Our system can track the visual of all display ads and the sites they end up on. Part of the analysis is whether the ad was placed above the fold (viewable without scrolling). The system also computes “share of voice” based on sampling the top 50,000 websites. This metric gives us an idea of whose “voice” was louder, in effect.

The bottom line gleaned from our analysis: Obama likely outspent Romney in digital display almost 10 to 1 online for virtually the entire duration of the 2012 campaign. However, Romney did try to compensate with a huge last minute push the week before Election Day.

Obama’s media covered a huge base of voters, with over 4,000 publishers to Romney’s 2,700. Romney’s buying was conservative, with buys through ad networks such as, Google AdSense and Lotame.

For Romney, conservative sites like The Drudge Report, and comprised the majority of his “share of voice.” Romney was largely preaching to the choir with his display advertising campaign—working to raise dollars for the campaign.

By contrast, Obama’s strategy was a combination of carpet-bombing and more surgical strikes on strategic targets. The Obama campaign used all major platforms: AOL, Google, Yahoo, MSN, ad exchanges and all sorts of targeting technologies.

By mapping ads to publishers, we were able to discover something about the intentions and skill of the planners—a more highly targeted effort on the Obama side. The Obama campaign used display advertising to remind students to register. The campaign often featured Michele when the audience was female ( and sent the anti-Romney ads to comedy and political satire sites.

The data suggests that Obama geo-targeted and leveraged consumer data (cookies) from Blue Kai. In late summer, the campaign was running offers for “Dinner with Barack” on sites that skewed higher income or higher education. By early fall, those ads were gone. In his entire campaign we saw over 200 different tags indicating different distribution tactics.

As for how the publishers treated the campaign business—Romney ads on The Drudge Report appeared below-the-fold 81 percent of the time. Red State and Breitbart were higher up on the page with about 50 percent above-the-fold.

One of Obama’s biggest publishers, MSN, placed 90 percent of the ads above-the-fold, Yahoo did about 50 percent, BET gave Obama 100 percent above the fold and Oprah 83 percent.

Obama’s strategy was clear: Use digital display advertising as a Swiss Army knife for targeted messages. The goals were to ensure Obama-inclined voters showed up on Election Day, get money from supporters and drive home a few key anti-Romney messages. Meanwhile, Romney’s display media campaign spent much of its time focused on fundraising.

In the end, it’s not clear how much of an impact Obama’s massive outspending and attack strategy in the digital display realm had in this election. But what we can say for sure is that Obama’s display advertising strategy was easily more diverse when it comes to message and significantly more expansive when it comes to coverage.

Jonah Goodhart is the CEO and co-founder of Moat, an enterprise analytics and intelligence company.

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