American presidential elections are undoubtedly the most followed elections in the world, owing to a long campaign cycle and the global role of the United States. They are characterised and made bigger by a campaign finance system where peoplified corporations can give unlimited money to political campaigns without having to declare it. This type of funding allows political campaigns to be big and sophisticated. For these and other reasons, they have also given us glimpses into the future of political campaigning in a digital world. In 2008, Nate Silver used large amounts of poll data and Bayesian modelling to successfully predict the result of the presidential elections in 49 out of 50 states. The same year, and again in 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign demonstrated how social media could be used to engage voters and the larger public. There is one aspect of online marketing, however, that is yet to be effectively utilised.
During the 3rd Democratic Debate held on January 17, there was a 400% increase in people looking up universal healthcare on Google. Search interest in candidates has also increased in the last few days following the respective party debates, but Donald Trump has consistently generated the most search interest since the launch of his campaign.
It is perhaps not surprising that after being exposed to television ads, banners, discussions, analysis, and debates, people reach out to the internet for more information on both issues and candidates. However, presidential candidates have little presence on the search results preview for most popular queries related to the elections. Previewing search results in the US for queries pertaining to the most important election issues so far, we find that no political candidate has presence on any of these.
This is somewhat surprising, given that search engine marketing is otherwise considered one of the most effective marketing channels online because ads can be targeted by, among other things, queries that reveal the searcher’s intent at the moment. Advertisers can:
- Choose what ads to show against what search queries or types of search queries e.g. “universal health care”
- Track user behaviour on the landing page coming from different keywords e.g. sign ups and donations
- Optimise your pay-per-click bids to maximise Return On Ad Spend (ROAS)
For example, someone concerned about gun regulation could be targeted with an ad about a candidate’s stance on the issue. Similarly, attack ads highlighting scandals and controversies associated with rival candidates are common, which is likely to increase search interest in them. Candidates targeted by such ads can show ads on queries related to such scandals and controversies to communicate their response/defense.
Given the number of searches that happen on these queries every month in the US, political campaigns might be missing out on countless opportunities to increase their exposure to potential voters, measure campaign performance, and maximise engagement.