The strategy we improved on: Make an outrageous ad with a compelling premise and run it just enough to get the press to start talking.

Our clients—America’s Voice, along with Media Matters, Presente.org and other groups—are part of a new powerful coalition to win the looming immigration reform debate. During the lead up to the legislative fight, our strategy was to send a shot across the opposition’s bow to show Congress and the media that the xenophobes weren’t the only side with teeth. The coalition aimed to take the poster child of the xenophobia movement—Lou Dobbs—out of the debate before it began.

The prospect of pitting a “shot across the bow” budget (read: small) against CNN’s (and thus cable news’) longest serving pundit is irrational on its face. We knew that on this budget we could not run the ad enough times to guarantee coverage. Moreover, while America’s Voice had a huge and active member list, they had never asked the list for money— so we had no idea if we could raise enough to make this an ongoing problem for CNN.

But we saw a number of opportunities. First, Lou Dobbs’ immigration coverage was antithetical to CNN’s brand positioning as “the most trusted name in news.” Second, CNN utterly botched the handling of another Media Matters campaign called “CNN’s Lou Dobbs Problem” by rejecting a tiny ad buy and thus turning it into a huge story. Third, CNN’s big fall special was set to be “Latino in America.”

Using paid media to drive earned media is not new. Ever since Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad, this strategy has been a favorite of political communications specialists because it can amplify the effect of a small budget. Johnson’s ad only ran once, and the famous anti-John Kerry “Swift Boat” ads only ran in three states. MoveOn.org has built an empire around a modernized version of this strategy (if the creative and cause is worthy, their membership will donate to see it aired). Our creative and cause were worthy. Unlike most of the above ads, Lou Dobbs provided so much of the ammo, all we had to do was figure out how to fit it into 60 seconds. Our tactics took this strategy a step further.

Our Plan

The basic elements of the plan should be clear by now.

We would make an amazing ad to drive donations, yet too controversial for CNN to accept. If the campaign raising enough money to air the ad during “Latino in America” wasn’t enough to generate press, then the placing, the inevitable rejection and subsequent runs on other networks would. All the while, MediaMatters and Presente.org would run their own petition to drop Lou Dobbs, thus building a narrative that appreciated the commitment of the coalition.

Culminating in TeamGroup’s outstanding TV spot, the plan worked perfectly. Dobbs’ resignation speech clearly alluded to the pressure wrought by our strategy and the coalition’s superb efforts.

The lynchpin of the entire strategy, however, lay with the notoriously unpredictable press. If CNN thought of this as a three-day story, it would have passed. We had to get their attention at the very beginning, so they would set up Google Alerts to monitor the story, and to ensure each little hit was noticed and made them nervous. This is where digital ads shine.

Nanotargeted Pressure

We needed to gain and keep the press’ attention, so we deployed digital paid media to target media employees specifically. The Facebook feature “workplace targeting” was our primary weapon. We targeted all CNN/AOL-Time Warner employees with 500 points per day (the Facebook max). We ran dozens of different ads, testing message hooks from “Why did you let Lou Dobbs broadcast from a hate rally?” to “Why is CNN profiting off racism?” We even called out CNN’s on-air talent by name: “Hey Soledad O’Brian, why don’t you ask Lou Dobbs what it’s like to be Latino in America,” to ensure the CNN staff was sending screenshots between departments. We also workplace targeted the staff of the 25 biggest political and national news outlets in the country.

To those CNN employees, it must have seemed like we were making massive ad buys when, in fact, what we did cost us about $1,750. In a matter of days, about 900 mainstream media employees (one in four from CNN) had seen the TV spot and knew what we were up to.

The majority of the Facebook budget was spent running the ads to progressives and Latinos with a hard fundraising ask. (Meanwhile, Blue State Digital ran similar Google Ads.) Not only were we delivering about 500,000 ad impressions per day, but we were also raising money from our clicks. By the end, the ads were paying for themselves, which allowed us to spend much of this budget again on TV.

Within 24 hours, we also launched banner ads that paired the best performing imagery, hook and call-to-action from the Facebook ads on political blogs. We understood that blogs tend to break political news fi rst and reporters read them compulsively. About $10,000 was enough to buy the entire available liberal blog inventory in both Atlanta and Washington, D.C., as well as all of the major Latino political blogs nationwide for over a week. More importantly, because bloggers approve the ads that run on their sites, these ads ensured sympathetic bloggers knew the message right away. This made the client’s aggressive blog outreach much easier.

We also leaked the story of the digital buy to ClickZ—one of the most well-read digital advertising publications. We choose them because an editor named Kate Kaye is the foremost journalist covering political digital ads, and they are exceedingly well yndicated and search engine optimized. (Anything that they post triggers dozens of
Google Alerts.) This post led to a post by MediaBistro—the insider rag for journalists—and the story exploded from there.

Soon, we were the top return for Google, Google News and Google Blog Search for the phrase “Lou Dobbs.”

From then on, every attempt we made to earn press (placing the TV buy, when CNN rejected it, when we finally got it aired on MSNBC and other unplanned opportunities) became part of a national story that began on the liberal and Latino blogs.

This small “shot over the bow” was sparked and amplified by nanotargeted digital ads and culminated in Dobbs’ resignation. It should come as no surprise that the client has already raised a huge digital ad budget, even by TV standards, to drive the immigration debate when Congress turns to this issue this spring.

Josh Koster and Tyler Davis are partners at Chong + Koster, a Washington, D.C.-based digital consultancy that specializes in high-stakes communications and win-or-lose situations around the world. They have run over a billion political ad impressions online.