New media has traditionally described every facet of a campaign the grizzled consultants didn’t understand, often ignored, and then farmed out to the youngest person on staff.
But in the past two election cycles, everyone from the grizzled consultants to the young staffers have gotten wise. New media is now digital, and the digital advertising industry has matured to the point where political professionals of all stripes need to understand how it works.
Whether you’re making the ad buy, cutting the ad, or simply advising the candidate, consultants often make mistakes when entering this new digital domain. Want to keep those rookie mistakes to a minimum? We’ve created a guide to help you navigate the usual pitfalls.
Mistake 1: Attempting to do acquisition and persuasion with the same budget
This is probably the most common mistake in politics and advocacy. Any large initiative or campaign generally has a number of goals including the recruitment of activists/future donors and the shaping of public opinion. Online ads are great at doing both of these things, but the way you’d approach each of the goals is very different and the same dollar cannot be spent doing both.
Acquisition is all about targeting people who already agree with you, getting them to click on your ad and then take an action—sign up for our email! If somebody doesn’t click after a few attempts, stop targeting them with acquisition ads. They’re not going to sign up. Acquisition can be done on a small budget and is typically done on the early side of a campaign’s life cycle (so you can monetize the leads for as long as possible.)
Online persuasion, just like its TV cousin, is about pushing the right message to your target audience right before the election—over and over again until it sinks in. We don’t care if the targets click on these ads and we certainly aren’t trying to persuade the people who already agree with us. Because persuasion requires a high frequency of ads, these campaigns are much more expensive than acquisition campaigns and often can’t be done on a small budget.
If you are trying to do both, treat them as separate initiatives with separate budgets. If the budget gets cut, pick one instead of underfunding both.
Mistake 2: An overreliance on online video
Pre-roll ads are basically online TV spots so it’s hard for even the most skeptical to question their efficacy. Unfortunately, this leads a lot of political pros to assume they should run only video ads for persuasion.
The truth is, for most of the electorate, video ads aren’t great for reaching many voters with a high frequency. Most voters will see them every once in awhile (while, say, watching sports highlights), but few consume enough of these ads for your digital buyer to deliver 6-10 impressions to each person in a short period of time.
Video has a place in buys because it’s great at storytelling. But you need to also invest in other ad formats like audio, display and Facebook to really push frequencies. Together these ad formats are much more powerful than they are alone.
Mistake 3: Under-reliance on display
Display ads are poorly understood in politics and often get overlooked in media buys. But what people often forget about display is that it touches everybody on the Internet. In many districts, display can actually reach more of the electorate than broadcast.
The trick here is using display as a frequency medium. You can tell a story through video and audio ads—whether it’s airing on TV, radio, YouTube, or Pandora—but once somebody has been told the story, display ads can remind them of the message with a very high frequency and relatively cheap impressions. A display ad can also stand on its own, but that requires a succinct and powerful message.
Mistake 4: Assuming Voter-File targeting is the only way to go
Voter-file targeting is useful in many applications. For highly divisive messages (that wouldn’t be suited for TV) or in races with really low voter participation. It can be a godsend that we use as a scalpel in buys. The mistake is assuming that this is the only kind of targeting worth investing in.
There are three very important reasons to use multiple kinds of targeting to build a buy: Reach, cost, and the fact that other good options also exist.
With just voter-file matching you’ll end up being able to reach about half of a given target audience. There are also costs associated with the matching, the data storage and licensing the data, which all drive up the cost of impressions—it’s premium targeting, after all.
There are also tons of other good ways to target online ads (age, gender, geography, psychographic interests, behavioral models). Many of those options come free or with a negligible markup so the impressions are cheaper. Moreover, many of these have much better reach.
It’s also important to remember that this is the technology that was being used to target when the first studies started coming out that showed online ads could move the needle—so we know the old tech works, too.
There’s no one-size-fits-all style of targeting so use both. Use more expensive voter-file targeted impressions to make sure you’re reaching as much of the core audience as you can. Then layer on less expensive targeted impressions to double down on the matched audience while simultaneously reaching the unmatchable audience.
If the message is inoffensive enough to put on broadcast and the audience is wide enough to reach through TV – rely more on cheap remnants and less expensive forms of targeting. If a message is divisive enough to only use in one-to-one communication like direct mail, or if the audiences are a very small percentage of an electorate, rely more on voter-file targeting.
Mistake 5: Assuming you are saving money by price shopping vendors on commission
This is an easy mistake to make because many of the media costs associated with traditional media are commodity costs, but online they’re more variable.
For example, the cost of postage is generally a fixed cost of mail. The TV political rate cards are predetermined. So with other forms of media buying, the amount of money you spend and the amount of impressions you get are pretty much a fixed ratio. If you opt for a vendor with a slightly lower commission, that discount can be used to buy more media.
But it’s worth noting that online a huge chunk of the ad impressions are sold through auctions on multiple networks, exchanges, demand-side platforms, and resellers. The same impression might be available from 10 or more different sources. This means the cost of impressions is quite variable and a skilled buyer can actually buy more media for the same budget. If you want to maximize your budget, make the decision about what firm to hire based on its digital savvy and then negotiate your rate as a second step.
Steffi Decker and Josh Koster are both senior partners at the digital advertising agency Chong + Koster.