Run Your Own Paid Media Campaign (Seriously)

by: Chris Bowers

Wed Sep 10, 2008 at 16:05

The progressive blogosphere spends a lot of time discussing campaign strategy. Every day, thousands of times over, we critique campaign messaging, debate the quality of ads, muse about targeting strategies, and suggest new lines of attack. The problem is, as Matt has often pointed out, the only help the Obama campaign wants comes in the form of campaign donations and volunteers to work on field operations. So, no one is really listening to our suggestions. We are not making a difference on messaging.

There isn't anything wrong with donating to the Obama campaign, or in volunteering to do voter registration, phonebanking, or other forms of field work. Those are important things to do, and there is real pride and dignity to being a political volunteer. The problem is, if you feel like I do, that it just isn't enough. For one thing, the Obama campaign has been consistently losing ground for the past two plus months, so it doesn't feel like what it is doing is working. Second, not everyone's best political skills lay in field organizing, especially if, like me, you are introverted (I've done some real field work, but it has been painful). Third, donating to a campaign is often a one-off endeavor, and lacks of satisfaction of continued engagement. Besides, maybe the money won't be spent effectively, anyway. Finally, if the netroots are just taking orders from large Democratic institutions, then we really just don't seem like a very interesting movement to me. Whatever happened to taking on the system and changing it with people power?

Taking the solid advice of Open Left commenter Will, rather than just complaining about this state of affairs, I decided to start running my own ads. Instead of feeling disempowered by narratives I can't do much to change and messaging that doesn't speak for me, now I have my own anti-McCain ads. The two ads will appear across the entire state of Pennsylvania, on about three-dozen different Google keyword searches for John McCain and Sarah Palin. It feels really good, too. Here are the ads:

It is my money, my message, my targeting. Based on the keywords and cost-per-click rate that I chose, Google estimated that my ads will result in 25 click-thrus a day, costing me a little under $10 a day. However, the ads will be viewed by exponentially more people and, because of the keywords I chose, only by people looking for information on the campaign. Further, as I learn what messages work and which ones don't, if I want to fit daily talking points or the latest scandal, I can easily change the ad. Also, I can change the locations where I am targeting on a moment's notice.

You can do this too. In fact, you should do this too. In the extended entry, I explain why and how.

Chris Bowers :: Run Your Own Paid Media Campaign (Seriously)
As part of the 2006 Googlebomb campaign, I did exactly this with BlogPac. For $475, using Google Ads like the one above ("George Allen Beat Me Up" was our favorite, and most successful ad), we had 3,000 click thrus, and over 800,000 search impressions, across fifty-two key House and Senate districts in the final two weeks of the election. Shockingly, for less than $500, we managed to have about 6% of the electorate in those fifty-two districts view our Google ads. Originally, I only ran the ads to monitor how many people would see our "Googlebombs" (it was actually an SEO campaign, not a Googlebomb) in those districts, but it quickly became obvious that the ads were themselves useful--not to mention cheap and easy!

For the amount of time it takes to write a diary about what sort of messaging Obama should be using, you can create you own advertisement. You don't even have to target the Presidential campaign: pick a favorite House candidate if it suits you more. You can spend whatever you want, with whatever message you want, and run the ads wherever you want. You don't need anyone's approval (except Google's), and you will only reach people who are looking for information on the campaign you decide to target.

As I outlined above, people will see your ad. Further, beyond the people who will see your ad, imagine if 500, 1,000, or even 10,000 people take this action. Then, your 25 direct voter contacts, and hundred of indirect daily voter contacts, will turn into hundreds of thousands of customized swing state voter contacts every day. If it grows large enough, we can create a vast, effective, decentralized, essentially unstoppable advertising campaign using this method. It would be the equivalent of an online, grassroots 527.

This is the sort of decentralized, people-powered and people-empowering action that the netroots should be taking en masse. If you want to help win this very important election, you don't have to just take orders from Obama staffers. You don't just have to hand your money over. You don't just have to do volunteer field work. You don't just have to repeat campaign talking points. You can run your own ads with your own message--and you can reach voters in so doing.

To get started, just go to, and log into Google. Then, click Advertising programs, which is clearly visible on Google's homepage. From that point, click "sign up now" for Google Adwords on the bottom left of the screen. From that point, Google has an easy-to-use, step-by-step guide that will take you through the rest of the process. If you can figure out how to post on blogs, you can figure out how to run a Google ad.

As for message, that is entirely up to you. However, it will impact which keywords you should use. Here are the keywords I chose to target for my ads:

Palin Ad
alaska governor palin
cindy mccain
governor palin
governor palin mccain
mccain palin
palin bio
sarah palin
sarah palin bio
sara palin
sara palin bio
vice president palin

McCain Ad
arizona senator john mccain
conservative john mccain voting record
john mccain
john mccain facts
john mccain information
john mccain issues
john mccain policy
john mccain political view
john mccain political views
john mccain profile
john mccain views
john mccain voting record
mccain conservative
mccain voting record
senator john mccain
senator john mccain facts
senator mccain
sen john mccain
sen mccain

My Palin ad is about her character, so I focused on her bio. My McCain ad is about his policies, so I focused on that. Google even provided me with assistance on which keywords to target, based on the content of my ad. Having done this before, I would recommend always using at least two keywords: the full name, and the last name, of the person you are targeting. For example, "McCain" and "John McCain." That is a minimum.

I choose a maximum click-per-cost of $1, and a maximum daily expenditure of $10. I figure it is best to shoot high on the click per cost, in order to be seen. It won't actually cost a $1 per click, more like $0.40. That is still a good price for a swing voter looking for info on McCain to end up looking at the website you want him or her to see.

As for where to target your ads, I chose my home state of Pennsylvania. I want to see if my ads work with my neighbors before trying them out in other markets. When you decide where to target, you might want to take a look at,, or my Presidential, Senate, and House forecasts before deciding. A little help with your targeting never hurts.

I will post an update on my Google ads every day from now to the election. I'll let you know how much it cost me, how many people viewed the ad, and how many click thru's I received. If I change the message in the ads, I will let you know. Also, I might run ads for Sam Bennett in PA-15, and Alan Grayson in FL-08, because those are great House campaigns that I want to support (Darcy, too, of course, but I bet she has this covered). Hopefully, some of you will join in the fun, and every day we can compare notes in the comments.

Happy ad making! Let's start taking charge of messaging and paid media where we can.

P.S. Don't expect your ad or ads to start working right away. I set mine up about three hours ago, and they haven't started running yet. But they do start running. Trust me, I've done this before.

P.P.S. you don't have to spend $10 per day. You can spend $1 if you like. You cna spend $50 if you are rich. You can start, pause, restart, and end the campaigns whenever you like.

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Great idea! (4.00 / 1)
Last year I ran Google ads against a local San Francisco ballot measure.  I got a lot of ad views and clicks, and it drove a lot of traffic to my web page containing a short argument in opposition to the measure.  It costs me something like $50 total for thousands of clicks, and Google allowed me to target only my own city.

I highly recommend that people do this stuff, although if you spend enough you could technically run afoul of some campaign finance laws, so you might want to funnel the money through a Cayman Islands corporation or something like that.  

Awesome work (4.00 / 3)
I remember giving a presentation at Netroots Nation on how people can do this sort of thing. For some reason, I forget about it until last night. It really is an effective form of grassroots advertising.

[ Parent ]
sounds expensive (4.00 / 1)
Is there any way for people who don't want to spend $10 a day on this to maybe pool their resources and chip in on an ad?

[ Parent ]
you could run $3 a day (4.00 / 2)
Spend as much as you like. The voter contacts all cost the same amount.

Spend $3 / day. Spend $1 / day. Only run the ads for a week. The budget is up to you. The $10 / day is just where I decided to start.  

[ Parent ]
Is there an organized way we can test messages with this? (4.00 / 1)
Chris, is there an organized way that we can test messages with this?  Is there a way that we could create a centralized place where people could suggest and pay for Google Ads, and the central organization would actually put up the ads and track the click-throughs?  It would be kind of like ActBlue for Google Ads.  We could then figure out which messages are getting the most click-through and then suggest that people outside the campaign pick up the message and run with it.  The Obama campaign might even pick up successful messages as well (although I wouldn't get my hopes up).

[ Parent ]
Just a quick note (0.00 / 0)
To say the support for Grayson is much appreciated! Alan and I were at Netroots Nation, but didn't catch up with you. This is a great idea; I'll start playing around with it. Thanks Chris, for all you do.

[ Parent ]
This is a great idea... (0.00 / 0)
I think I'll give this a shot.

This is -wonderful-, Chris, and (0.00 / 0)
not only am I gonna do this (in addition to my embarrassingly garbled ad on OpenLeft!), I'm gonna pony up some cash to OpenLeft just to reward the fantastic idea.

If anyone wants to join me and throw a few more bucks at OpenLeft, click the link.

Oh, and did you cross-post this to dKos? (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
I'll get it to (4.00 / 2)
Setting up the two ads, and then writing this piece, took me about three hours this afternoon. I'll cross-post shortly.

[ Parent ]
Cross-post it everywhere. (0.00 / 0)
This is a great idea, and somehow more satisfying than just making a campaign contribution ...

Republicans can't fix our country; they're too busy saddlebacking.

[ Parent ]
I see you use the magic word "vote" (0.00 / 0)
might there be some restrictions on ads like that?

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Maybe for orgs (4.00 / 1)
But I'm just one guy in an apartment in West Philly spending less than $200. No restrictions on that.

Besides, it can easily be classified "voter education," which has no restrictions on negative advertising.

[ Parent ]
Terrific! (4.00 / 5)
Great proactive effort.

If OpenLeft sets up a PayPal account to fund some of these ads, I certainly would be happy to donate to it.

Great work and targetting a battleground state is smart.  

Me too--great idea (4.00 / 2)
This stuff is all beyond me, but I'm happy to help others do it.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

[ Parent ]
I'll look into doing it myself but... (0.00 / 0)
honestly, I trust Chris' insights on google searches and hits far more than my own and would prefer to let someone who knew more about it, set it up.

Either way, it is a terrific idea and hopefully more will give it a try.

[ Parent ]
Agreed (4.00 / 1)
I've done some SEM stuff at my current job, and it's pretty easy to make a mistake and spend more money than you have.  There's also a bit of an art to writing ads, getting the right message out to the right people (i.e. people in new hampshire but not California, etc.)  Not to say it's an impossible skill to learn, but an option to donate to Chris or some other central campaign would be great.

Also--have you tried content search matching?  Not sure how that would work on this sort of campaign, but I've seen it dramatically increase impressions for almost no money.  

[ Parent ]
campaign finance laws (0.00 / 0)
Once there's an organized funding source with an actual bank account, campaign finance laws come into play.  If the money is used to run ads encouraging people to vote for or against anything/anyone, it would at least have to be a 527, and restricted from any coordination with any campaigns (which might mean, for example, that if you work for any campaign you couldn't be involved or use the money).  Or it could be a PAC.

[ Parent ]
Other tips (4.00 / 7)
1. For each ad campaign, always create at least two versions of your ad and have them run simultaneously to see which ad gets the most clicks. Every few days, drop off the least popular ad and create a new one to run against your most popular one to see if you can get more clicks. (In your campaign settings, under Scheduling and Serving, be sure to click on "Rotate".)
2. As much as possible, try to incorporate the keywords in the headline and text of your ad. This will cause Google to give you a higher Ad Quality Rating and feature your ads more often. Also, be sure to include prominent and repeated words from your landingpage in the keywords you select for your campaign.
3. Include misspellings in your keywords. Not everyone knows how to spell McCane and Pailen.
4. Don't just focus on the most popular keywords. More obscure keywords will have lower traffic, but your ad will have better click-through rates and will rank higher because there will be fewer competitive ads.
I'll try to post more of these tips as Chris's effort rolls-out.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

He should also be using Obama keywords (4.00 / 2)

[ Parent ]
Yes! (0.00 / 0)

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
You Go Chris (0.00 / 0)
I went to lunch depressed and I came back to this positive direction.  

Fight back.  Fight on.  Win, win, win...

I'm a web / graphic designer... (4.00 / 1)
So if my skills can be of use I'll be glad to help. The campaign seems anemic right now. Since the polls have upticked I have been completely baffled and dispirited. The national conversation is so stupid, I mentally just can not take it. Intelligent rebuttals and funny quips just aren't doing the trick as Obama has been trying. Now I see why political veterans are so cynical.

If Obama loses this election I fear my generation will revert back to the apathetic gen Y'ers that we were.

my the top :-) (0.00 / 0)

[ Parent ]
How do you create (4.00 / 2)
an ad?  By this I mean what tools do you use?

Doug Tudor is running in Fl-12 - I would love to do this for him (he has signed off on the resposible plan).  

I have a proposal:  As a group let's vote on the best ad of the week, and contribute $10 to making it more visible.

Good idea (0.00 / 0)
I'd also like to see Chris' ads go out to wider audience. We could contribute to that.

The McCain is 95% Bush is my favorite.  

[ Parent ]
Great idea (0.00 / 0)
This is the sort of thing I like to see here at Open Left.

Any ideas on good things to link to on the following topics?

- McCain on the GI bill
- McCain/Palin/GOP anti-abortion (specifically about no abortion even in the case of rape)
- McCain against equal pay for women

(The links from "searching for John McCain" are ok, but they have too much other irrelevant stuff about democrats in the articles.)

Did you ever know that you're my hero? (0.00 / 0)
Chris--I frakkin' heart yer ass.  

This is awesome. (4.00 / 1)
My crazy father had a good idea for an Obama spot. He pointed out that a lot of people don't really understand what 90% means - that they're either completely visual thinkers or they suck at math. So he asked me if I could make a cartoon/video with Obama and McCain as spin-the-wheel carnival barkers. On McCain's wheel 9 out of the ten slots read "Bush" or even "Cheney", and only one reads "Change". On Obama's they're all "Change".

This diary's inspired me. I'm going to make his ad in iMovie (though I suck at that sort of thing), upload it to YouTube, and use a Google AdWords strategy to get it seen. Thanks so much for this concept.

And if anybody else with Flash or something can make a video like this faster and better than I could, I'd be happy to pay for the ads pointing to it.

I did something along those (4.00 / 1)
lines for Tom Allen in Maine. Video.

[ Parent ]
Cool - can you make it even simpler (4.00 / 1)
can i just give you money every month to help fund it?

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

exactly (0.00 / 0)
I would do that.

[ Parent ]
Some good links for the "Hypocrite" angle? (4.00 / 1)
I'm not sure why, but I feel like this is something that's not being attacked... Lipstick on a pig is one thing, but attacking someone else for something you're already doing...

I'm thinking the McCain lobbyist thing, the straight-talk vs. direct lies... hmm.. what else?

Smart (0.00 / 0)
Great post and great work!  

nerdier still! (4.00 / 2)
You could link to your own content and use google analytics (free) to track performance of the campaign.  If you made a video, for instance, you could embed the youtube on your page with the tracking, and maybe a link for a donation to keep the media buy going.  Track that page too. If they donate... guess what, you've just done voter ID.  You can contact those people for gotv or volunteers.

The analytics will allow you to see at what point in the chain people keep going or quit, so you can tweak those points.

My only big question is: if you get a bunch of your buddies to chip in, do you then have to file as a 527?

This really is a great post (4.00 / 2)
Not only is an answer to me :), but it gives enough depth to get started and gives one plenty of ideas of how to expand on this. One can easily imagine getting even more sophisticated, tracking click-throughs to pages that have an "email a friend" or whatever and monitoring conversion rates. this all gets into sophisticated online marketing. its not super new, but you're made it accessible by putting it in a place where everyone reads every day (vs having to go out and hunt down this info on ones own). what would be a super add to this is if some online advertising marketing people could expand on this. the other really great thing about this is that it works for such small budgets that it can be used by candidates and political movements at all levels. how-to guides like this are invaluable to small campaigns which may not have a lot of tech savvy or even know about such tools. very nicely done Chris - bookmarked for future political campaign reference.

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

like what tacky said just above (0.00 / 0)

Michael Bloomberg, prince of corporate welfare

[ Parent ]
listen: that noise is appualse (4.00 / 1)
in fact, its a standing ovation.

Not to get all fascist or anything (0.00 / 0)
But do we need any ground rules here?

What do we NOT want people to say and link to?

Bravo!!!! (0.00 / 0)
Nicely done, sir!

Props to Will for the idea and encouragment!!!

Careful (4.00 / 2)
I would not put up too much info up. Before long you'll have freepers clicking through just to charge you.

kick it up a notch... (0.00 / 0)
chris, this is an excellent idea, but i would propose that we take it a step further. we could have all sorts of folks running ads like these but rather than linking to an article here and a website there, all the ads could link to a common website. on the website we can have our own messaging, our own full-length youtube ads, etc. basically, use the google ads to drive traffic to a common, netroots-run site supporting obama and tearing down mccain.

Fantastic idea (0.00 / 0)
I just set up an AdWords account to direct traffic to a local state senate candidate I'm supporting.  

To make sure everything's legal, the candidate will just dock my expenditure as an in-kind contribution.  The beauty of this is that it's completely self-directed, and something that is very targeted.

I'm going to make sure some of other local candidates get with the times as well and set up their AdWords accounts.  They're wasting a ton of money on lame side-banner ads run in traditional media web sites, but AdWords is a lot more effective.

mangled text? (0.00 / 0)
... log into Google. Then, click , which is clearly visible on Google's homepage.

Fix that sentence?

You need broader search strings, though (0.00 / 0)
People should think outside of the box, more. E.g.:
Paris white haired guy
Paris Hilton white haired guy

bridge to nowhere
road to nowhere

Palin moose
Palin gun

Obama Muslim
Obama born Africa
Obama raise taxes

jibjab Obama
jibjab McCain
jibjab Palin


435 Dem Primaries 2012
Coffee Party Usa

[ Parent ]
My Campaign (0.00 / 0)
Set it up last night in 30 minutes.
Thanks Chris for the great idea.


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