Search Behavior on the Campaign Trail – A Lesson for Marketers

By Dan Kuthy, Account Strategist

There are plenty of online information sources that voters rely on when evaluating Presidential candidates, and as marketers, we constantly evaluate the impact of online research on offline behavior. Voters look to authoritative sites like Project Vote Smart and the Congressional Budget Office for non-partisan data on candidates’ positions, voting records and the impact of their proposed legislation on the federal budget and national debt. On the flip side, it is no surprise that constituents turn to Google, Yahoo! and Live Search to dig deeper, learn more about the candidates and explore the often nefarious world of political blogs.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Because I’m a voting American and an experienced search engine marketer, I thought it would be valuable to consider the differences in the ways Americans query their beloved candidates. There are three major questions that I’ll answer for you:

1. What are the key behaviors that differentiate searchers looking for Obama vs. McCain?

2. How do media events, speeches and campaign actions impact political search behavior?

3. How can politicians and marketers leverage search behavior to run more effective campaigns?

In Chicago, we typically start our conversations with Obama, but I’ll buck the trend by giving Mr. McCain the first word. McCain searches are conducted all over the world, but I was surprised to see Iraq ranked second to the United States in McCain and Palin search volume. This is likely a combined result of U.S. military personnel and Iraqi citizens and officials showing interest in American politics. McCain searches most frequently originate in Washington D.C. followed by Colorado, New Mexico and Maryland. McCain’s home state of Arizona is ranked 7th in McCain search volume. Not surprisingly, when McCain queries are compared to those for Obama, he commands a much stronger portion of searches in rural areas and small towns. The politics of Politics have peaked the interest of McCain searchers as well. Queries for “paris hilton mccain,” “mccain flip flops,” and “mccain houses” are all on the rise, as a result of allegations that, when asked, McCain didn’t know how many houses he owned and the recent appearance of Paris Hilton in his campaign ads. For the first time in August, McCain queries outnumbered those for his rival, Barack Obama. Both candidates experienced a significant uptick in overall search volume since August 10th in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention on August 25th and 26th.

Obama searchers heavily outweighed McCain searchers in 2008 and until August, there was no point in time when McCain was more heavily searched than his rival. Like McCain, Obama search volume from Iraq ranks second to the United States. Obama searches are indexed most highly in Washington D.C., Oregon, Maryland and Vermont, in that order. The politics of Politics haven’t ignored Barack Obama seen in up and coming queries like “obama lies” and “obama pastor,” referencing the extremism displayed by Barack Obama’s former pastor.

Sarah Palin has taken the cake in the Vice Presidential matchup and has enjoyed nearly 5 times as much search volume as Joe Biden. Queries for Senator Biden have dropped off significantly since August 24th, preceding the Democratic National Convention while queries for Governor Palin continue to rise.

Taking a look at McCain search volume January through March, it’s clear to see the impact of campaign actions on search queries. McCain winning New Hampshire in the Republican primaries [C], his speech on Feb. 5th [B] and President Bush’s official endorsement of John McCain [A] are all visible in search query volume:

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McCain on Google Trends

On the same note, you’ll see the impact on search volume experienced when Obama won the primary vote in North Carolina [B] and clinched the primary nomination [A].

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Obama GT Med Pictures, Images and Photos

Candidates and marketers rarely take full advantage of the wealth of search behavior information available to them. As candidates respond to attacks from rival campaigns, they should be monitoring up-and-coming search queries to determine which smears are getting under their constituents’ skin. Candidates should be flighting their search budgets to capture the dramatic spikes in search volume that revolve around their campaign actions, speeches, etc. Geographic data can accompany polling data to determine key swing states. Search behavior enables competitive research by allowing campaign analysts to identify trends in searches around on competitive or sensitive issues like abortion, the economy or national security. Search behavior isn’t only valuable to political junkies; it is an incredibly powerful form of market research that business leaders should be tapping regularly.


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