Digital budgets are now in the multi-million dollar range but remain a low percentage of the campaign’s total media spend.
During winning Senate races last cycle, campaigns on weighted average spent only 4-7 percent of their media budgets on digital, according to a new report by Tech For Campaigns, a non-profit that provides technology services to campaigns on the left.
The report puts digital spending last cycle at $623 million, which is below earlier estimates which pegged it around $950 million.
The average spend on digital overall for campaigns and PACs in 2018 was 2.7-5.1 percent, with 50 percent of the media budget going to TV and direct mail.
Jessica Alter, co-founder of TFC, called the percentage of digital spending “shockingly low.”
The report also notes the multi-million dollar digital spends of the campaigns of Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill ($2 million), Bill Nelson ($1.7 million), and Heidi Heitkamp ($1.4 million) who all lost their reelection bids.
While those numbers may seem large, they’re actually a small percentage of the campaigns’ overall budgets. McCaskill spent more than $38.2 million last cycle, Nelson’s camp spent more than $32.4 million and Heitkamp’s expenditures totaled more than $23.6 million, according to FEC filings.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just about the raw numbers,” said Alter. “It’s about the percentage – finding the right [media] mix.”
As a comparison, Alter noted TFC’s report found that President Trump’s 2016 campaign spent 44 percent of its media budget on digital and brands across different industries typically allocate 54 percent of their marketing budgets to digital.
While Trump’s first campaign invested heavily in digital, on average, Democrats have put more money into digital than Republicans. For House campaigns, Democrats spent 5.1 percent to Republicans’ 4 percent on digital. For Senate campaigns, it was 5 percent for Democratic camps, 2.7 percent for Republicans. But when it comes to PACs, those GOP-aligned are spending on average more on digital: 4.3 to 2.7 percent for Democratic-leaning groups.
Some of the other findings from the report:
Most digital spending is coming late in the cycle when it’s not possible to learn from the data the ads generate. “People are basically waiting to spend on digital,” said Alter said. “It’s getting the extra money at the end.” For instance, the report found that 56 percent of ad spending on Google’s platforms happened the month before the election—and for 42 percent of advertisers only started spending in that four-week period.
“You want to start investing in digital much earlier, and you can ramp up your budget and still have it inform other categories,” said Alter, noting that digital creative or messaging could be transferred to a mail piece.
“It’s not an either-or, you can do both and they can complement each other,” she added. It also saves money to go up earlier. Eight weeks out is when prices start to rise, up to 25 percent by Election Day.
Republicans are favoring Google more than Democrats who favor Facebook. “As a percentage of their [digital] spend, they’re spending a much higher percentage of their [budgets] on Google,” Alter said. While the company doesn’t break down where those ad dollars are going (search, YouTube, etc.), Alter said anecdotally she heard pre-roll was where a lot of Republican ad dollars were being spent.
Republicans are splitting their dollars almost evenly between Facebook (52 percent) and Google (48 percent) while Democrats are investing 75 percent of their digital ad dollars on Facebook and 25 percent on Google.
Facebook users aged 55-plus are three times more likely to engage with a campaign spot on the platform.
“One of the things we hear most from campaign managers is, ‘I have an older constituency so I don’t do digital,’” Alter said. “That doesn’t hold up [based on the findings].”
The 2019 C&E/PSB Research State of the Campaign Industry Poll found a large majority of political professionals believe digital spending will actually reach parity with TV spend by the 2024 presidential cycle.
67% of professionals said it’s either very likely or somewhat likely that digital spend will catch up fully by 2024, with just 30% labeling it somewhat or very unlikely.
Survey results are based on online interviews with 408 professional political consultants conducted by PSB Research from Jan 10, 2019 to February 2, 2019. The survey has an estimated margin of error of +/- 4.85%.