Online advertising works as part of a comprehensive marketing effort, but the key to success for political campaigns is having the right strategy. TV spots build on the foundation laid by an online banner ad, plus a billboard and a mention on Facebook. It all works together.

The added benefit of online advertising is that it has a measurable impact in terms of clicks or email sign ups. How does one measure the performance of, say, a billboard? It’s hard to quantify. The same is true for TV ads. Only a fraction of the commercials you see on TV are so-called “direct response” ads, which include an 800 number or website—ways of measuring its performance. The majority of traditional media ads don’t have a notable call to action.

Online display advertising works like most traditional advertising. You create awareness with it. You enhance your brand with it. You convince people to get out the vote with it. If you’re not running ads online, your competition will.

My firm recently consulted on a local election in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, one of Canada’s largest metro areas. Our client’s strategy was to concentrate on driving turnout by aligning a strong GOTV program with the issues and policies being rolled out by the campaign over the course of five weeks. Here are a few takeaways from that winning effort to keep in mind for 2012 when it comes to designing an effective online marketing strategy for campaigns here in the U.S.

1. Target your audience. Instead of purchasing site-specific inventory and hoping constituents see it, we worked with our Canadian client to obtain a well-defined audience. We used three traditional ways of classifying prospects: demographics (age, gender, income); geography (city, state, region); and behavior (site visits, purchases, memberships). Combining all of these factors, we were able to tighten the focus of every ad buy, selecting inventory that the target audience would not only notice, but also take action on.

2. Get in front of their eyeballs. Search Engine Marketing (SEM), also known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, augments the organic search engine listings achieved through Search Engine Optimization (SEO). A key reason search engine marketing works is because it positions your campaign in front of voters at the point when they’re making a decision. Search engine marketing generates traffic quickly and cost effectively by reaching your target audience at the exact moment they’re looking for your information. 

3. Keep them coming back by going to them. You want people to stay on your website until they take the action you want them to, whether that’s donating or filling out a volunteer contact form. But that doesn’t always happen. We worked with the Surrey campaign to help retarget those lost website visitors by delivering ads to supporters who had previously shown interest in the campaign. We were able to encourage supporters to donate or volunteer by retargeting display ads on sites across the web that supporters visited after they left the campaign’s website.

Cami Zimmer began her Washington career working at The White House. For over a decade, Zimmer worked on public policy issues, managed campaigns and non-profit organizations. She has spent the last seven years as an entrepreneur.