Early in the 2012 presidential cycle, Jonah Goodhart had already fielded calls from both the Obama and Romney campaigns. They wanted to know what Moat—the online analytics company Goodhart founded—could offer as far as tracking when and where the opponent was placing online ads.

Neither campaign ended up using any of Moat’s paid analytic and tracking options, and despite how far political campaigns have come in terms of analytics, their limited entreaties exposed a lasting shortcoming for Goodhart.

“I think the campaigns are extremely focused on direct response and so look at everything through that lens, as opposed to a brand awareness focus,” says Goodhart, whose company acts as a sort of search engine for online display ads. “A great example is the contribution emails many of us get, which are continually looking to drive clicks and direct donations. This is not a negative comment on that strategy, it’s just pointing out that they don’t seem to focus on the brand effect of their ads.”

Moat offers advanced ad analytics in an attempt to move clients beyond clicks and clickthrough rates (CTRs)—a level of analysis Goodhart says campaigns would be smart to embrace sooner rather than later. It’s something brand marketers have already come around to.

Take a company like Proctor & Gamble. The majority of its sales are offline, so a web ad might not result in a click or online purchase. But that doesn’t mean a viewer didn’t go out and purchase one of the company’s products because of the ad. In that case, you need a different metric to gauge whether or not that ad was truly effective.

Let’s apply that to campaigns. Picture advanced metrics tying political ads to the size of donations or even polling numbers. What if you were able to quantify which aspects of an online ad pushed donors to give more? Or, better yet, what if you could connect online efforts to shifts in the polls? That might be a little ambitious at the moment, says Goodhart, but that’s exactly where he thinks things are headed.

Out With the Old
After the 2012 cycle, there’s no question that fully-integrated digital teams are in. Well run campaigns understand the need for digital efforts that work with and boost the efficiency of all other aspects of the operation. The challenge is finding the right analytics to help achieve the end goal.

The most widely accepted language of persuasion is spoken by media strategists and media buyers. Gross rating points (GRPs), cost per impression (CPM), reach and frequency—all concepts strategists can easily wrap their brains and their media plans around. But how to better quantify reach and frequency online? How about clicks and measures of online engagement?

We’ve come a long way in eight years, says Nicco Mele, who helped chart the course of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 online effort. Even back then, it was easy enough to talk in terms of CTRs, open rates, average gifts and frequency of gifts as it related to the online fundraising operation.

The metrics were employed around email acquisition and conversion—deciphering what prompted supporters to give. Fast forward to the past two election cycles and the Obama campaign has taken fundraising analytics much further by introducing more sophisticated testing and evaluation in the form of email list segmentation.
The real problem says Mele, is that the Internet is great at raising money for campaigns but really bad at persuading undecided voters, and that’s where the metrics need work.

“The Internet is really well understood for fundraising. It’s well understood for GOTV and field,” Mele says. “It’s not well understood for persuasion. That’s the Holy Grail. That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”

Online, the ad cost per thousand views is irrelevant, says Mele, but that’s where viewership is increasingly headed. In September of last year, Targeted Victory teamed up with SAY Media, Chong & Koster and pollsters Neil Newhouse and Thomas Eldon to study the media consumption habits of voters. They found that 31 percent of likely voters hadn’t watched live TV the week prior. That number was closer to 40 percent in the swing state of Ohio.

“Until we [create an ideal representation of persuasiveness online], reach and frequency are pretty important,” Mele says.

In With the New
For Goodhart, reach is only a valuable online metric if it can be identified as effective reach. The level of attention paid to any given website varies by ZIP code, and the level of attention paid to any given ad on a webpage varies by placement. Every detail matters, and analytics prove it.

For campaigns, it starts by being responsive, says Colin Delany of epolitics.com. If you are “running Google ads or Facebook ads but not allocating resources to the ones doing well or seeing where the message is resonating,” then you’re doing it wrong, Delany says.

Moat pushes advertisers and publishers to look past traditional metrics like CTRs. The average CTR for a web ad is somewhere in the ballpark of .03, but Goodhart believes there’s value to many ads even if no one’s clicking. CTRs may fit the direct-response world, but they’re limiting. Instead, Moat tracks mouse-overs and measures how long it takes for a user to click or scroll away—essentially gauging an ad’s effectiveness within its surroundings.

“We’re measuring consumer attention,” Goodhart says. But political campaigns aren’t a real part of the company’s client base quite yet. Goodhart can chart a candidate’s overall share of the online voice. For example, for the month of September, President Obama’s share of all Internet domains covered by ads outmatched Mitt Romney’s by an enormous margin—93.3 percent to 6.7 percent. Goodhart can also track when campaigns shift focus online—from persuasion to GOTV, for example.

“So this info starts to tell a story about what they’re doing,” he says. “We look at about 50,000 sites a day, so we were able to see where the Obama campaign was advertising and who they were buying through.”

Metrics in Action
The Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA didn’t have countless millions to spend on television ads in the 2012 cycle, but the Super PAC honed its message online by being responsive to metrics. Backed by the digital team at Global Strategy Group, the Super PAC bought ads on Hulu and Pandora.

Priorities employed social media analytics to evaluate campaign buzz and tweak the Super PAC’s anti-Bain, anti-Romney message online. When Priorities ran Twitter ads, GSG monitored the ratio of replies, which can often be negative, to retweets and clicks to analyze the exposure of the group’s videos to a wider audience through social action.

“So we would monitor this ratio for each tweet as we’re at the controls and make adjustments to our targeting to make sure we’re reaching people who will amplify our message,” explains Hugh McMullen, GSG’s Senior Associate for Digital + Social. “For example, if we’re getting too many negative replies in a campaign we’ll switch out the tweet or change the targeting to skew a bit more liberal.”

Tweets would be monitored long term for engagement performance, and that informed how Priorities tweeted moving forward. Through the process, GSG learned that encouraging a retweet worked well, and tweeting a quote from a linked video was frequently more successful than explaining it.

GSG also used YouTube analytics to test the effectiveness of online video ads. One ad, titled Stage, was twice as long as most political ads at 60 seconds, but paid traffic—a full view registered by YouTube and charged to Priorities—moved rapidly. At the end of the cycle, Priorities revisited the ad because the metrics read so well.

“The metrics and analytics are going to get a lot better,” McMullen says. “For Twitter, at least, this was really their first big election. Working with them, I can tell there are better things to come.”

According to Mele, the end game for social media analytics is to figure out the sentiment behind posts and tweets and then impact social media to move those numbers. Beth Becker, social media activist and founder of Progressive PST, agrees but says the measurement tools aren’t quite there yet.

“The problem is there’s no one tool that I can send you a link to right now that measures not just quantity but quality of conversations,” she says.

Various tools measure pieces of social media conversations. Facebook Insights and Twitter Web Analytics provide the most detailed metrics on those platforms individually. Twitterizer offers Twitter integration for apps, and Klout attempts to quantify social media influence across platforms. Not to mention a slew of other social media monitoring tools.

One of the closest to hitting the mark right now is Attentive.ly, which turns campaign lists into info-graphics—matching names with social media networks, prioritizing the most influential for targeting and monitoring who’s talking about the campaign. The next step: developing tools that can truly quantify engagement. Becker is developing her own tool for determining reach, but she says it’s not close to being tested yet. Still, she expects a greater emphasis on sentiment analysis of social media in the immediate future.

Jim Pugh, former director of analytics and development at the Democratic National Committee, predicts more control testing—determining the most compelling “donate” button color—and data modeling of lists—knowing who donated before and getting them to donate again.

“As integration increases, using data to optimize programs between networks and communities, both offline and online, becomes good option,” Pugh says. “I think what you’ll also see is a mix of core experts who really know stuff—generalists who are good on multiple fronts—plus people who can sit across the desk.”

Digital will never replace face-to-face GOTV efforts, but it’s important for campaigns to be willing to experiment with analytics and supplement that offline component.

“You’re never going to replace shaking hands and holding babies, and I don’t think you should,” Becker says. “The role of analytics is figuring out how successful things in the past were and then tweaking future iterations.”

Dave Nyczepir is the staff writer for Campaigns & Elections.