A screen shot from the Obama campaign's "Table" ad, viewed… (Obama for America )
FAIRFAX, Va. — Forget the on-campus rallies or steady stream of television ads. For Trejon McGee, an 18-year-old freshman at George Mason University, the clearest indication that election frenzy was upon him was when politics had elbowed its way onto YouTube.
“It’s those 30 second ads you can’t get rid of,” McGee said of the commercials that would run before video clips on popular sites like YouTube and Hulu.
Meanwhile, election day visitors to the websites of major swing-state newspapers, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Las Vegas Sun, have been greeted by prominent ads from President Obama’s campaign, reminding readers of poll closing times and offering to confirm polling locations.
In the battle to reach every last voter, campaigns and outside groups are leaving no screen untouched. And while most discussion on political advertising centers around the eye-popping spending figures on television airwaves, the 2012 campaign marks a maturation of online advertising strategies, an evolution that hints at what’s to come in future elections.
POP QUIZ: 'Daisy,' other famous campaign ads
“In 2008, people would buy stuff on Drudge Report and say, ‘Hey, we did an online ad buy!’” said Peter Pasi, a Republican digital ad strategist based in Virginia. “In 2010, people started to advertise on Facebook. Now there is more rational, granular targeting.”
Another sign of the growing importance of online ads: what political spenders are willing to pay for them. As senior vice president of marketing at YuMe, a video ad network, Ed Haslam has seen demand for video placement on popular sites skyrocket. He described 2008 online ad budgets as “six-figure experiments.” Now, he said, they’re more like “seven-figure mainstream plans.”
In part, digital ads offer campaigns the ability to get more mileage out of television advertising, particularly in states where the airwaves are saturated and advertising time is scarce.
“The most natural starting point is take your ads … and put them online,” said Andrew Roos, who helps oversee political ad sales for Google. Roos said the pre-roll ads that viewers like McGee encountered were hotly desired by the campaigns.
But the online options spin out from there: display ads on coveted websites, featured searches on Google, radio ads on Pandora, even videos running in between rounds of "Words With Friends," the Scrabble-esque smartphone game.
VIDEO: The best, and worst, of the year’s political ads
Who sees and hears these ads can be targeted with a remarkable degree of specificity, as advertisements can be tailored by geography, by demographics, even browsing history.
“As part of targeting, we know the location of where that device is. We can target geographically, target by ZIP code,” said Greg Chang, who steers YuMe’s political clients. “That’s really important, especially in this election cycle when you look at key battleground states, where votes are being fought for.”
He added that women, young voters and Latinos were among the key constituent groups that his clients hoped to reach.
Both presidential campaigns have made multimillion-dollar investments in their digital ad strategy, but, Pasi noted, they have taken different approaches.
“Obama was running a lot of stuff at a more even pace,” Pasi said. “Romney has really tried to hit lightning moments” — the convention, for example, or his VP selection.
Across the political spectrum, most savvy digital strategies incorporate “four screens to victory,” said Roos, staking out a presence on people’s TV screens, computers, tablets and smartphones.
“You have to go to where the audience is,” Roos said.
PHOTOS: America goes to the polls
Pasi predicts that trend will only continue, with the 2016 presidential campaign being even more centered on mobile and tablet advertising.
But the embrace of digital shouldn’t cause TV station owners in battleground states to wallow just yet. Pasi said TV’s primacy in political advertising is safe for the time being.
“TVs are still going to be the way to reach the most number of people at once with a given message,” he said. “For the larger, meta messages of campaign, smart consultants will use TV. … Smart, micro-targeted messages will be the realm of the Web.”
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook