Lured by improved targeting, the possibility of earned media and pandemic-induced bargain rates, political marketing dollars have been migrating outdoors.
Spending on out of home (OOH) and digital out of home (DOOH) by campaigns and groups is up 48 percent for first five months of 2020 over the same period in 2018.
That year saw $18.6 million in political OOH spending up from $16.5 million in 2016 (the year, not the full cycle), according to trade group Out of Home Advertising Association of America.
Some practitioners see outdoor advertising as an attractive placement because its novel, usually isn’t an overcrowded channel, and is effective for simple messages — particularly GOTV.
“Anyone can run digital ads. Anyone can put an ad up on Facebook. But a certain amount of effort goes into putting up a billboard, so people actually trust billboards,” said Debra Cleaver, founder of Turnout2020, a nonprofit group that runs voter registration, turnout and protection programs.
Back in 2018 while she headed Vote.org, Cleaver bought 3,000 billboards in 29 metro areas using Census data to target 35 million mid-to-low propensity voters in what she then called the “largest GOTV campaign in America.”
Cleaver has no regrets. “I would absolutely recommend it,” she said. “At the end of the day, billboards are giant yard signs, and we all know yard signs work.”
Of course, many strategists see yard signs as a necessary evil at best, and some digital consultants told C&E they’ve recommended removing OOH and DOOH from their media plans for this cycle due to concern the ongoing pandemic would keep more people out of airports, away from bus benches and WiFi kiosks and limit their time in front of gas station video screens.
Vendors say that’s a mistake. They point to vehicle traffic data, for instance, as not being significantly off pre-pandemic levels. Data varies, but some states, like Indiana, have seen a 5 percent drop in the past two months over the previous year. Michigan officials say traffic there is beginning to move upward after being down 18 percent year over year in June on some infrastructure.
“This could be the kind of grand coming-out moment for out of home as a truly scalable, political medium,” said Dave Etherington, chief commercial officer of Place Exchange, a programmatic outdoor vendor.
The targeting is done with first or third-party data, such as with device IDs or through LiveRamp. According to Etherington, geo-signatures are put onto first-party audience data and from those, signature heat maps of where that particular audience over indexes are created.
In digital programmatic OOH, buys can be placed for certain times of day, or even for certain weather like rain, but typically the client buys impressions, similar to online.
“Those digital techniques are really being used an awful lot in this arena,” he said.
The catch is that DOOH and OOH media networks are regional. While they’re now getting stitched together by vendors like Place Exchange and Vistar, the owners themselves retain control over the creative they’ll accept to run. And some have minimum buys starting at $25,000.
DOOH video is growing in popularity. In fact, analytics firm Nielsen recently announced it was adding OOH TV viewing to its fall ratings releases. “I think we’ll see more video than ever before,” said Etherington, who noted that street furniture, WiFi kiosks, bodegas, grocery stories and gas stations are places where voters could be reached with full-motion video.
Brett Butz, who handles political ad sales for Vistar Media, said that he’s also been recommending DOOH video to his clients. “Where the dwell time is going to be longer for an audience — gas stations, some of the urban panels in parking lots, but static images on where people are just going by.”
Still, the pitch that today’s OOH is not your grandfather’s billboard might miss the point, according to Cleaver, the voting advocate.
“Billboards are a really great way to convey a simple message to a lot of people for not a lot of money,” she said. “So much of what we’re trying to do in this country is to remind people who have a lot on their minds that there’s an election coming.”